Hailing from Sussex and Evesham respectively, the pair are steeped in the folk traditions of English songwriting with influences drawn from, among others, Sandy Denny, Richard and Linda Thompson, June Tabor, Nick Drake and Bert Jansch. Their joint debut, Seas Are Deep, was a collection of well-known traditional numbers, while the follow up, Fire & Fortune, mixed traditional and self-penned material to sublime effect.
Taking its title from Wordsworth’s Intimations of Mortality, with the sort of pensive and melancholic mood that implies, the same applies here, Clarke writing the words and music and providing recorder, sax and flute with Walker handling the orchestration arrangements and playing guitars, mandolin, banjo and keys, joined by John Parker on double bass, Ruairi Glasheen on percussion and Jim Moray on piano as well as an array of backing musicians on strings and brass.
Of the three traditional numbers, it’s fair to say that the best known will be ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’, Clarke’s fairly familiar forlorn interpretation offset by a bold arrangement that weaves its way from keyboard drone through medieval coloured flute to puttering drum rhythm, Spanish guitar and parping sax. Introduced by willowy recorder and flute, it’s preceded by the courtly textures of ‘The Queen of Hearts’, cello and acoustic guitar crafting a stately pavane setting, while the third offering is a more traditional folk reading of ‘I Wonder What Is Keeping My True Love Tonight’ accompanied simply by fingerpicked guitar.
With its pizzicato violin and lush strings, self-penned, dreamy ballad opener, ‘Silverline’, is an early taster of the new richness and delicacy in Walker’s classical inspired arrangements, a development reinforced by the short, cello and violin accompanied ‘A Simple Refrain’ on which Clarke’s joined on vocals by Sam Brookes for a tender love song swathed in pastoral clouds.
Things heat up a little rhythmically on ‘It Would Not Be A Rose’, strings circling around acoustic guitar and hand percussion as Samantha Whates’ backing vocals blend with Clarke’s pure, leafy tones. ‘The Tangled Tree’ is another number steeped in natural imagery that addresses its theme of caged spirits and the cruel passing of time with a slow sonic gathering built upon ghostly multi-tracked backing vocals, somber piano and backwards guitar.
Things take a diversion for both ‘I Never Learned French’, a reverie of regret in a retro 30s frame, dawn breaking over the Paris skyline to the strains of a muted, melancholic trumpet, and, a personal favourite, ‘Moving Speeches’, a sprightly snare beat and banjo-accompanied skip through American folk backroads, Clarke sometimes sounding spookily like Denny. It comes as something of a shock, then, to slip into ‘Mainland’, a four minute experimental number that opens to the desolate sound of a sparse cello drone, siren call and breaking waves before the arrival of Clarke’s quivering, emotionally numbed vocals against an electronic backdrop as the number gradually swells over scuffed drums and treated guitars in a manner that suggests a darkside version of Clannad.
There’s similar experimentation at work on ‘Earth And Ash And Dust’, ushered in on a pulse of backwards treated guitar giving way to a scattering of sombre Spanish guitar notes as Clarke’s vocals eventually merge with the wordless backing to become the choir of some Renaissance cathedral frozen in time.
Things are more restrained for ‘Now You Know’, a slow, measured ballad with Walker’s simple repeated guitar pattern adorned by sweeping strings and French horn, with the album ending its journey in the early hours at some dimly-lit cellar bar blues club with a sleepy-eyed jazz trio and strings section for ‘Water To Wine’, Clarke evoking vintage Janis Ian with a resigned reflection on a self-denying uncertain future as she resolves to “do something good with my life” but must “accept that whatever I find it won’t be mine.” Whatever the future holds, it will be the more bearable for their music.
Artists’ website: www.josienneclarke.co.uk
‘Silverline’ – the official video: