JULIE ABBÉ – Out Of The Ashes (ANIS002)

Out Of The AshesJulie Abbé releases her second album, Out Of The Ashes on April 5th. Abbé is French by birth, she moved to England in her twenties to study vocal jazz, is now a Bristolian as embedded in English and Irish folk music as she is in French or American traditions. For the last two years she has, I gather, been the singer for the opening ceremony of the Glastonbury Festival. Some CV, then. There are twelve tracks on the album, three sung in French, two tunes, and the remainder sung in English. The styles are varied, with elements of folk, jazz, blues, even swing. The band is captivating, Abbé’s vocal is mesmerising. She’s also written the songs.

The best advice I can give is, “Just listen.” Not in the exasperated way a now-ex-partner might have used the phrase, but in the way an ornithologist once suggested to me so I could distinguish individual calls. Out of the Ashes is a delicate piece of work, one that repays time and attention.

The album opens with ‘Lanternes d’Or’. As well as Abbé on vocals, the core of the band on the album consists of James Grunwell (guitar, drums), Ewan Bleach (piano, saxophone, clarinet, autoharp), and Sam Quintana (double bass) and they kick off the album in classy style. You know what it’s like when you watch a jazz band live and they move the tune from one part of the stage to another and you’re not always sure where to look or what your ears should follow because it’s rather like having too many sweets to choose from as a child? ‘Lanternes d’Or’ is a gentle track, but it’s played superbly – and mixed rather nicely so you can hear the parts as well as the whole, voice and different instruments gently dominating in turn and then passing on. (Do I prefer the double bass, which is pitched very nicely throughout or the autoharp which is a tad unusual? Like a jazz gig, I don’t have to choose as they, and the other instrumentation, can be heard clearly in their turn. I don’t know of an antonym to ‘wall of sound’ but if I did, and it similarly reeked of class and style, I’d use it.

‘Au Bord de la Riviere’ is the only track co-written (with Paul Johnson). If the first track has a flavour of Jazz, this second track has a flavour of France, beautifully plucked guitar and the vocal supported by recorder and bansuri as the melody moves on. ‘Melusine’ is the final track sung in French, gralla and kaval adding further to the subtleties of tone of the ‘blows’ on the album, mingling with the percussion, bass and vocal to occasionally give an Eastern flavour.

Whilst we consider the French tracks, it’s worth noting not just the vocal (gorgeous) but also the nature of the French language to create, for an English ear, a smooth, fluid sound to go with Abbé’s intonation. It also allows for words which are more poetry than lyric:

Tant qu’les lanternes d’or
S’elancent dans la nuit grise
Tu existes encore
Et je file à leur suite


J’échappe au leurre terne 
Qui meurt et rampe en
appauvrissant l’âme

Roughly [and thanks to Françoise for tweaking my original]:

“As long as the golden lanterns
Rush into the grey night
You still exist
And I follow after them

I escape the dull temptation
Which dies and crawls
impoverishing the soul”

The more I listen to Out Of The Ashes, the more I find something to make me listen again, even more closely.

‘Take Me Away’ is a track with the feel of ‘still sitting round the table at 1:00 a.m. in a jazz club and listening to a slow-beat-song’. A clarinet decorates Abbe’s voice in the song – and her vocal is perfectly pitched at ‘not-quite-smoky’. It will have everyone gently swaying to “Take me away…” while also, equally gently, singing along.

‘Shadows’ and then ‘Medicine Tune’ later, are the two tunes on the album – it would be wrong to call them instrumentals as Abbé adds a vocal to both but no words to either (you may need to give them a listen).

‘Hushing The Blues Away’ is folk-gospel with another chorus to softly sing along to. As the title suggests, it is one of the merrier tracks. On ‘Songs of Love’ Abbé’s steady vocal contrasts with a faster folk-cowboy undertone and a splendid acoustic guitar solo; it all sounds as though it shouldn’t work, but it does. ‘Summer Child’ brings in saxophone for embellishment, and, more than any other, has a lyric that fascinates me with its imagery of sadness, and of positivity. Every time I think I’ve got it in my grasp, I pick up a different sense from a song that (I think?) teases with negativity and haunts, but doesn’t despair?

‘OUT’ has a sense at times of rage, anger, grief, even a “poisoned gift”- the arrangement is appropriately loud in places – electric guitar, saxophone and drums making for a tune a little fiercer than the rest of the album. Even so, the track concludes:

Out of the pain of disillusionment
Lies the path of your liberation

‘Medusa’ asks us to “Trust the Great Mystery / For at the end of the long night / There can be a bounty spring”. The album closes with ‘Incantation’, a melody and arrangement to bring a smile to the face, and a lyric about shared self-knowledge in a couple, concluding both song and album with:

There’s just so much to share
Well-founded trust and space
And we’re guided by love
Our shining star above

In sum, Out Of The Ashes is both unusual and a gem; Abbé’s songwriting and vocal are equally unusual and a gem; the musicians are spot on; the production is splendid. It’s an album not to play in the background, but to play on a good system / speaker and notice how, just like someone with a lovely voice talking quietly, you have to listen … and consequently you do listen, closely, and because you want to; similarly, with this album, you want to be attentive to capture the delicacy of playing, vocal and writing.

You can get an idea of Out Of The Ashes from the sensuousness of ‘Take Me Away’ in the video below. Just listen.

Mike Wistow

 Artist’s website: https://julieabbe.com/home

‘Take Me Away’ – official video: