JOHN BLEK – The Embers (K&F Records K&F046)

The EmbersThe fifth album from the fingerpicking Cork singer-songwriter, conceived as the third in a series of four thematically-based releases that began with Catharsis Vol 1, The Embers comes steeped in reflections on the aftermath of the fires that no longer burn, change in both political and personal senses.

It opens in rueful mode with ‘Empty Pockets’, a story of a musician “singing for my supper on every corner”, contrasting his impecunious freedom with the emptiness of those just going through the motions of life, a wayward son weary and worn but who’s “felt more than anyone”. The note of mortality is picked up on ‘Death & His Daughter Fair’, a folksy number drawing on a traditional ballad narrative approach that would seem to be suggesting that being “temped by beauty fair” can lead to a living death when they prove “a changeling with a trick to play”.

Set to slow waltz tempo with a circling guitar pattern and softly brushed percussion, ‘Ciara Waiting’ is another wistful love song, this time coloured with hope (“I have been known to be lost on my own/And been found in the arms of my lover”), its image of candles carrying across into ‘Flame (Little Death no.,3)’, another, but more brooding, waltzing melody that captures the passion of desire (“I was the spirit and you were the match”), a “smouldering sin” quickie in the hay shed that “lit up the dark” before the ‘little death’ of climax.

Following courtly troubadour toned guitar instrumental ‘Old Hand’, a song about healing and how “we all need help sometimes”, ‘Revived’ opens and is carried along on co-producer Brian Casey’s minimal piano notes, gradually building towards the end with Matthew Berrill on clarinet.

Again evoking a traditional feel, stripped back to chiming guitar and piano essentials and a slow march drum beat ‘Hell Or High Water’ speaks of devotion and steadfastness (“He tore the heart out of his chest/And stitched it to his sleeve/For all to see his honesty/To help his love believe”) and that he would remain by her side, father to her child, though there’s a suggestion in the lyrics (“every word a worthless sound”) that he may prove the faithless lover of so many such folk songs.

Perhaps that’s why it’s followed by ‘The Haunting’ (“I saw you there through your window/Mourning the loss of love you’d once known”), fingerpicked acoustic guitar gradually joined by piano and clarinet in another court minstrel musical setting, the album ending in sombre lyrical mood with the echoey vocals and atmospheric clarinet of ‘Walls’ which expands into political and war protest territory with its images of a “blood stained shroud”, bullets and borders and those who watch from offices with blood on their hands, Blek accusingly asking “who stood and watched with ambivalence”.

The Embers is a musically low key affair, arrangements subtly shading and underscoring its lyrical concerns, but also one that often also strikes you with the force of a hammer wrapped up in muslin.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Empty Pockets’ – official video:

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