KATY ROSE BENNETT – Songs of the River Rea (Own Label KRB001)

Songs Of The River ReaBorn in Oxfordshire, part of the prolific musical family that also includes brothers Joe and Robin of the magnificent The Dreaming Spires (Joe also a member of Co-Pilgrim), the former BBC Young Folk Award finalist artist hitherto known as KTB (and erstwhile founder member of Little Sister) has been penning her own songs about “elephants, vegetarianism and unrequited love” since she was 12. These days, she’s based in Birmingham where she works as a musical therapist with children with autism and mental health problems and also leads a variety of community choirs, including One Voice, a project for those who have suffered brain injury, she co-directs with her partner.

In-between all these, she has found time to release three terrific albums, All Calm In Dreamland, Bluebird and Indelible Ink, variously earning comparisons to such names as Dory Previn, k.d.lang, Nick Drake and Kate Rusby. It’s been six years since the last album, but the long wait is finally over with this first release under her own name. Taking its title from the Birmingham river also celebrated in song by Red Shoes, as you might gather there’s a strong autobiographical vein here, most notably so on the jaunty, countrified ‘Driving Home’, a song about coming back from the hospital after her partner gave birth to their son, and again after he was briefly readmitted three weeks later.

There’s a family connection too on the lazingly lovely ‘Soul In The Soil’, a song about her grow-your-own self-sufficient gardening grandmother and her love of the land. It features Robin on flute who joins drummer Mike Monaghan, guitarist Phill Ward, Oxford singer Hannah Rhodes and pedal steel player C J Hillman (not to be confused with pedal steel player Chris Hillman) in lending their musical talents to the album, while Joe produces, play keyboards and adds harmonies.

The album opens with the rippling ‘Cold November Day’, a song of remembrance that references the River Rea and which, from the lines ‘you’re still here in the air around us, still here, in the earth beneath us, the lettuces we grow’ seems to also be about her late grandmother. There’s a playful note to ‘Counting Kettles’ as, backed by humming background vocals and Robin’s flute , she sings about distracting herself from ‘self-destructive reverie’ on a Chiltern Railways journey Marylebone to Moor Street by thinking of what life still has to offer, despite someone listening to “bad trance music” and a father and son loudly discussing football.

From here, she turns her attention outward with ‘Jack & Ivy’, a gentle waltzing song of love, memory and loneliness about former elderly neighbours as Ivy remembers her late husband who used to chauffeur the local postmaster around Birmingham for 25 years. Heavily percussion driven with cowbells and shakers, the buoyant ‘One Day’ perks up the rhythm in a tumbling, chorus catchily ‘Gracelands’-style.. The lyrics mention the army of darkness and, while I’m not sure whether that’s an ‘Evil Dead’ allusion or not, there’s a definite movie reference with ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’, a lazily rippling, summery fingerpicked lighthearted character sketch of herself, which interpolates a guitar line nod to Neighbours when she talks about watching her favourite Australian soap.

While folk, both English and American, is her bedrock, as I say, she’s equally partial to country flavours, evidenced in fine form with ‘Rusted Ring’, a classic up-tempo snare-driven, leg-slapping broken relationship number with lap steel and an infectious chorus that you could imagine getting the crowds going in some Texas honky-tonk. Definitely a highlight among highlights.

On a quieter and more reflective note the alum heads into the final lap with dreamy defiant ode to positivism ‘We’ll Keep Trying’ with its lilting swayalong chorus and ‘One More Time’, a close harmony piano ballad forever love song to her partner, before closing with the strummed, military beat ‘My Friend’, an anthemic song about not wanting to lose a friendship just because a romantic relationship has come to the end of a road that builds to a trumpet break and a capella chorus before the big final flourish.

Despite critical acclaim, Bennett has never quite found the wider audience she deserves. The River Rea could well open the floodgates.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: https://www.facebook.com/Katy-Rose-Bennett

‘Driving Home’ live: