MARSHES – When The Lights Are Bright (Endearingly Ramshackle ER0001CD)

When The Lights Are BrightThe artist formerly known as Beth Porter and the Availables, the name inspired by her new home in Dumfries and Galloway,  When The Lights Are Bright is a new venture for the acclaimed cellist and songwriter, also part of Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band, but one that, recorded two years ago, has been waiting in the wings for the right moment.

Working with frequent collaborators like Jools Scott on piano, viola player Emma Hooper, multi-instrumentalist and producer Luke Cawthra and husband Ben Peace on occasional glockenspiel, it draws on her own experiences of anxiety and panic to explore themes of mental health and isolation.

It opens with ‘Frame’, Pete Gibbs on double bass, her cello pulsing through what seems to be a song about dementia, taking the tempo down on the slow waltz ‘Wake Me’, a song about a relationship in which depression is a third partner that’s lushly coloured with strings, woodwind and brass, the drums kicking in on the chorus refrain.

Stabbing keyboard notes provide the musical neurosis for ‘Rear View’, the song based on her own driving experiences, gradually building in intensity as it mirrors the desperation lyric about the way inexplicable fear and anxiety can creep up on you. On a slightly more positive note, reflected in the summery feel of the upbeat arrangement, ‘You’ve Always Been’ concerns the person who’s always waiting to emerge from behind whatever dark clouds temporarily obscure them, the handclaps echoing the support and encouragement of others as she sings “Look around you/We’re all here/We all want you/Back down here”.

With an arrangement that mixes together sax, violin, trumpet, flute, clarinet, piano and glockenspiel, ‘The Game’ comes with a jaunty, almost vaudeville and, on the money-themed chorus, even a cabaret feel, the lyrics somewhat oblique and she sings about “my rented mind”.

The longest track at just over five minutes but stripped down to cello, piano and slide guitar, ‘Dreams Of You’ recalls a childhood friend who suffered from depression in the days before such diagnosis was more commonplace, Porter haunted by her feeling of not being there for her (“I could have saved you…Never reached out for you”) and of being jealous and having “Said things I didn’t mean”. The song references the dreams that prompted her to get back in touch.

Again featuring glockenspiel as well as bongos and Hammond organ, given a vaguely 60s folk pop feel, set to jaunty walking beat and sung in a deceptively sweet and summery voice ‘Grey, Grey’ is another ambiguous lyric that essentially tells of calling out to someone she thinks she recognises, a jazz musician it seems, who pays no attention while others turn and look. The line about “When your mind is a blur” and the repeated “grey, grey, grey” again point to a mental health reading.

It ends on two musically lively numbers, pizzicato strings, trumpet and woodwinds colouring the orchestral pop (and slightly occidental) flavours of ‘Who We Are’, a song of love, a supportive relationship and musical self-therapy number (“Singing is a way to work”), and, circling cello notes and Paul MacMahon’s drums laying down a driving beat punctuated by string flourishes, the title track offers a bittersweet to and fro between drifting and uncertainty and resolve, the refrain changing from having “a little piece” to “a little peace”.

Lyrically you have to work at teasing out Porter’s ideas and meanings, but even when not explicit you have a sense of what’s going on, while her light, airy, voice, her terrific cello work and the buoyancy and dexterity of the surrounding musicianship holds you in its spell, often at odds with the darkness in its making.

Mike Davies

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Artists’ website: www.marshesmusic.com

‘Grey, Grey’ – official video: