Although likely to be tagged as Emily Barker’s side project to Red Clay Halo, the trio was actually put together in 2011 by British songwriter and theatre-maker Dom Coyote, an associate artist with Kneehigh Theatre, with whom she’d worked two years earlier on his music-theatre piece, The Raun Tree. Forming Vena Portae, the name is Latin for vein portal and refers to the vein that carries blood to the liver, they wrote a bunch of songs inspired by ideas of veins, portals, rivers, roads and connections, which then lay fallow until the arrival in 2012 of Swedish producer and instrumentalist Ruben Engzell, the trio then taking themselves off to Mölnbo, a small town on the Baltic seaboard just outside Stockholm, where, over that winter, they set about recording the album.
Two years later, it now sees light of day to coincide with the trio’s debut UK tour (and vice versa), revealing a marriage of folk, country and pop with jaunty opener ‘Summer Kills’ (the single version of which is remixed by Peter Morén of Peter, Bjorn and John) actually evoking thoughts of Dolly Parton in an enchanting summery fusion of Appalachian mountains and Scandinavian fiords. As such, the gently rippling ‘Before The Winter Came’ also puts me in mind of First Aid Kit, with added harmonica while Appalachian notes can also be heard struck on the languid banjo accompanied waltzer ‘Stingrays’.
However, there’s other shades here too, often recalling Barker’s own more folk inclined earlier work. Again accompanied by banjo, a gently lolloping ‘Foal’ inhabits similar territory to the Be Good Tanyas, the tumbling chords of ‘Flames And Fury’ is a poppier folk affair and the darker ‘Turning Keys’, a spooked folk blues with Barker in deeper voice and echoes of Brecht and Weill cabaret enfolded in the extended play out. Equally, both the sprightly close-harmony ‘Magpie’s Carol’ and the hauntingly somber, medieval-tinted ‘Solitary Wives’, the latter of which sees Engzell taking whispery lead vocals with Barker on harmonies, are far more indebted to classic folk traditions.
The songs are all credited to the trio save for ‘Transatlantic’, another stripped back and stark backwoods folk-hewn number to feature dappled banjo mood and mournful harmonica, which was penned by Swedish singer-songwriter Christian Kjellvander who also puts in an appearance of the album’s final two numbers, Coyote taking lead on ‘The Mapless Sea’ with its lurching drum beat giving way to a vocal interplay rolling, repeated refrain coda and, Engzell’s whisper again in the spotlight, the piano-backed, soothingly hushed, optimistic ‘All Will Be Well’, fading out on an electronic pulse.
Less chilly than the sleeve photo suggests, although Barker’s name will attract the most attention, this should be seen very much as a collaborative affair and one which, having finally found its way into circulation, will hopefully continue to keep the blood flowing alongside the individual members ’other projects.
Hear the single, ‘Summer Kills’:
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