Saturday, January 29, 2011


Earlier this month the BBC Poll declared The Sound of 2011 to be Jessie J, another photogenic white female BRIT School graduate. Just like the previous two years. It’s easy to disparage such polls as the media and mainstream music industry play safe, clone earlier successes or clutch at straws. Meanwhile the real sound of 2011, like in 2010 and 2009 and 2008, will be that found bedrooms and home studios, on micro-indies and from DIY releases: more authentic, less manufactured, from a myriad of genres and often built around a small community of fans.

Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo crowd-sourced the funds for their second album “Almanac” using Pledge Music. They exceeded target within five days. Pledgers received their albums and packages of extras last December ahead of the official release date of 7 February.

The eleven songs on "Almanac" are peppered with nautical references - billowing seas, coastal airs, fighting gulls and moored boats. But don’t be expecting coarse salt-encrusted shanties. The Red Clay Halo trio - Jo Silverston on cello, Anna Jenkins on violin and Gill Sandell on accordion, flute and piano - ground these songs with a chamber-music elegance, and occasional edge, that is luxurious but never ostentatious.

Songs move from the frail fluttering of ‘Dancers’ to the more muscular sway of ‘Openings’, from the eerie hum of ‘Pause’ to the elated jig of ‘Calendar’ but overall never diverge as hugely in tone and texture as this spectrum suggests. Despite Barker’s Western Australian upbringing, there is a breezy and English pastoral feel to the record but also a cool reserve. For all the calm external composure they project however, there are contrary emotions and tensions at play beneath the surface.

So ‘Billowing Sea’ sings of the pain of heart-break but also the liberty, even escape, it brings in. The quieter ‘Reckless’ considers how “we can love and mourn at the same time” in. Lyrics can be allusive rather than specific but given most songs, even the most obviously historical one ‘Witch of Pittenweem’, are sung in the first person there is an emotional directness to them that is captivating. The almanac of the title therefore is less about plotting tidal movements or the changing seasons but more about changing and changed human emotions.

This is a strong record of beautifully crafted song-writing that should build on the profile Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo garnered with first album "Despite The Snow" (and accompanying "Wallander" theme music tie-in) and reward the faith of those pledgers. But will it become the Sound of 2011? Sadly not. But I’d like to think this finely nuanced folk-pop will become one of the myriad Sounds of 2011. And if you’re looking for an authentic, thoughtful and engaging listen it knocks Jessie J and the like into a cocked hat.

Billowing Sea - Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo

Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo Alamanac [BUY]

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