RACHEL CROFT – Hours Awake (Black Ink BI19001)

Hours AwakeA York-based singer-songwriter and illustrator, influenced by Celtic folk, Croft bookends her debut studio album (she previously released a live covers collection) with its two strongest, but highly contrastive, numbers. It opens with ‘Old Climbing Tree’, a dark and moody Celtic-inspired number, sparse hollow drums, violin and cello backdropping low vocals that seem to arise from cavernous bowers as a refrain which speaks of dreaming about times past is set against lines like “When the morning sun cleanses the dark inside clean/Green glass bottles lie by your cold tired knees”, and of holding on to hopes when the sand castles we build are washed away. Ten tracks later it closes with ‘Can’t Replace Your Perfect’, a laid back, soulful, gospel-tinged strummed number that echoes the former’s hints of a self-destructive personality (“You slip like water through my hands/Cos you don’t want no one to save you”) and calls to mind Gladys Knight’s singing ‘Midnight Train To Georgia’.

In-between, she offers a fairly diverse range of self-penned material, she playing guitar with backing musicians that include Emyln Vaughan on electric guitar, bass and double bass, violinist Emily Lawler, Karl Mullen on keys, Rachel Brown on cello and Neil Scott holding down the drums. ‘Hear Me’ was the first song she wrote back in 2014, a dreamily melodic, airy, gently fingerpicked and softly sung number that again plays on a note of supportiveness, while, a reflection on a relationship that was never meant to be (“This ain’t a love story but it don’t mean that I can’t tell it that way”), the melodically playful ‘In Blue’ conjures thoughts of early Joni Mitchell in both its title and musical form.

Her debut single, featuring co-producer Dan Webster on guitar, ‘Only Dreams’ is another, moody number underpinned by distant cello, rumbling drums and keys, Croft’s pure voice soaring on Judie Tzuke wings, followed, in turn, by ‘Don’t Feel Like Holding On’, a song about the sometimes impermanence and futility of love (with another image of castles in the sand) accompanied by melancholic cello and a muted train-rhythm drum beat.

Past relationships are also at the heart of the disarmingly beautiful fingerpicked chords of ‘Rainier Day’, another reflective number that balances both the determination to hold on (“The darkness hasn’t come to us quite yet”) and the acceptance of what has gone (“I’ve wasted years and years to try to make you proud of me, but I wouldn’t cut my hair for you or change my stupid clothes”), ending with the heart-aching line “I’ll save these tears ‘til I know you’ve gone to stay.”

A cello-backed folksier, soulful ballad with a slow sway rhythm, ‘Change Your Mind’ also treats on loss and being left behind, seeing relationships as being a natural cycle like the turning of the seasons, seeking not to cling on but simply hope things take a different turn.

By contrast to such introspection of the heart, ‘Hot Rain’, the newsiest song on the album, is a simple fingerpicked, ticking drum beat number on a theme of social inequality and labelling (“Welcome to the box that they have categorised you in/Be it who you choose to love or the colour of your skin”) and a reminder that the blame lies with others, not you.

She returns to the passing of time and impermanence for the slow march beat, Celtic-hued ‘Long Were The Hours’ with her descending vocal riffs, the musical mood continues on the sparse, wistful ‘6,000 Miles’, a mournful cello opening a lullaby of longing to “find the right someone to make you feel home” and be one of the couples sitting on benches, Nathan O’Grady providing the harmonies.

Imbued with sensuality, yearning, resignation, hope and a vulnerability that is both beguiling and painful to share, this launches a major new voice and songwriter on the international scene and, while it may take some time to seep into your veins, is assuredly going to prove one of the finest debuts of the year.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.rachelcroftmusic.com

‘Rainier Day’ – live:

DAN WEBSTER – Devil Sky (Paper Plane PPR1801)

Devil SkyDan Webster is a British singer-songwriter who has been described as the fusion of folk and country. On his fourth album, Devil Sky, much of the country influence comes from his band which includes Joshua Burnell, of whom we have spoken before, Emily Lawler on violin and Polly Bolton on mandolin who share much of the musical decoration. Dan doesn’t write country songs but sometimes they just turn out that way.

The opening track, ‘Playing Cards & Late Night Bars’, harks back to a song on his second album, catching up with the protagonists ten years on. After a folky introduction it sounds exactly like the title suggests it should and it’s followed by ‘Home Again’, a melancholy road song with a neat lyrical twist and a big arrangement. ‘Bo’ opens with unaccompanied harmony before kicking off into the first really country-sounding song. It’s actually about Dan’s son, Ben, who sings on the track and I guess that the words have a deep meaning for father and son but for the rest of us it’s a fun song.

Some of Dan’s songs have a point to make and ‘Freedom In Suburbia’ is pre-eminent among them. It might be thought a little heavy-handed but the thing is that the title is a threat rather than a celebration which is clever. There’s a great deal of sadness here: ‘Haul Away’, ‘Mary Anne’ and ‘Sand’ are all pretty miserable, beautifully performed but definitely not cheerful. ‘Joe’ is a modern take on a murder ballad with the whole process from unlawful killing to execution condensed into a week with another twist in the tale.

Dan has assembled a very fine band and his production is excellent. That said, Devil Sky, isn’t an album I’d select for a little light listening.

Dai Jeffries

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Artist’s website: www.danwebster.co.uk

‘Playing Cards & Late Night Bars’: