Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo - Dear River - Folk Radio UK

It's an unusual position to be reviewing Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo's new album after having seen most of the songs premiered live (live review here). The gig was amongst the most enjoyable this year so far, but also signalled a new sound and a subtle shift in musical direction. With their preceding work, Almanac, a personal favourite and one of the records played most over the last couple of years can Dear River live up to it?

The waters are further muddied by the special edition formatting of Dear River that will see the CD come with a bonus disc that features the Red Clay Halo playing the same songs in stripped down mode. I have graciously been given access to both. As exciting in prospect the bonus is, its sound is actually in marked contrast to the album itself, which has been given a sumptuous sonic treatment courtesy of Linn Records, to whom the girls are now signed.

So how does it all stack up? Unsurprisingly with all of the elements it's taken a while to get stuck into this. This at least affords the opportunity to press play repeatedly and the conclusion is that Dear River is taking its place right alongside Almanac as one of my most treasured albums.

At the live performance it was the newly electrified set up that was the most significant feature. With both Emily and Jo Silverston plugged in and amped up and drummer Nat Butler also making his presence felt. The more the CD is spun the less significant that seems. Sure there's both a fuller bigger sound and an enhanced rhythmic snap, but notes in the margins simply read, "Great tune!" As suggested above, sumptuous seems the best way of describing Calum Malcolm's production.

Emily's voice is a shimmer throughout, a strong presence but also delicate, either buoyed by the surging arrangements or hushed to a gentle, intimate whisper. I don't know whether it will actually stand closer scrutiny, but the impression is that the harmonies are a little more sparse and used strategically to build an extra high on those emotional peaks. Maybe it's simply the strength of Emily's vocal performance that is simply getting better and better.

As for emotional peaks there are plenty of them, perhaps starting with the soaring middle eight of the opener, Dear River, as Emily sings, "But in every floodlit archway and every faded town goes the memory of a self I've left behind, so please take me from these bright lights  I've loved them more than they have me." Then there's the sudden churn of cello that whips up the line, "There's a break in the rain so grab your guitars," in Tuesday.

At the premiere show, Emily revealed that Letters was about her Dutch grandfather's experience during WWII. Beyond the opening lines, "We were woken by planes and parachutes falling down from the sky through the morning light," there is a real sense of desperation in the quest to escape, with prayers eventually answered. The idea of letters being written to those left behind is a powerful one and the coda is one of the places where massed voices are used to really spine tingling effect.

The Leaving is brooding and dark with its images of crows and Everywhen is propelled by a delicious surge of violin. As per my live review this has the hint of Scarlet Rivera from Dylan's Desire. Sleeping Horses meanwhile is as dreamy as the title suggests with the delightful line, "Fetlocks at my fingers". Ghost Narrative turns the river into a metaphor for the human history and picks up the pace again with a surge of Neil Young-esque harmonica and even a tasty little lead guitar lick straight from the early 70s.

A Spadeful Of Ground continues Emily's emotive look at the fate of the Aboriginal Australians and is naturally barbed with lines like, "For a pocket of dirt you would lie and you'd hurt, for a piece of this land you have blood on your hands." It's a subject that she's explored before, although Bones from Almanac is rather more obliquely poetic, while this song pulls no punches.

The descending acoustic guitar figure that sets up The Cormorant And The Heron as a slow mournful waltz makes for a pretty tune and the swell of strings takes it towards a yearning conclusion. It gives way to the dancing finger picking of In The Winter I Returned, equally gorgeous, classic singer songwriter fare. The  imagery is haunting, as the lines, "The cold wind pushes day, black and grey through the valley, there are heartbeats in the leaves, there are crows that hold the trees," seems to distil an English winters day. Emily has returned to the place where she lives, even if she admits, "No matter if I never call you home."

The Blackwood finishes the CD and returns us to the river theme, as the river from Emily's Australian homeland that started this journey, with all possibility ahead of her. Fittingly it has something of a valedictory, country-gospel feel. The circle is complete as Emily sings, "I'll swap my blood for Blackwood water," adding "Like silt on the riverbank like sunlight through the trees, I'm your fallen star returning and never will I leave."

Listening to the acoustic version is probably best not done as soon as the main CD is finished, as the recording obviously lacks the punch of the fabulous full production, but by giving the extra CD its own space a fresh insight into the songs results. For starters the starker setting puts Emily's voice even more firmly in the spotlight and quartet's chemistry into sharper focus. Some of the arrangements also benefit from the subtlety of the acoustic timbre, so that fiddle, cello and piano suddenly stand out and create their own hooks.

You can hear it straightaway in the interaction between the cello,violin and the breathy wheeze of the accordion in Dear River. The harmonies that The Red Clay Halo do so well are also more immediate. Then there's the minimalism of the piano in Letters, which hits right at the aching heart of the song making the climax heartbreakingly poignant. It's a trick repeated by The Leaving, with the girls harmonies once again a delight and then again in The Cormorant And The Heron.

I've never been one for the extra tracks, different takes and snippets that have been used as incentives to get you to buy a second version of something you already own. Perhaps this is the exception to prove my rule, but as it has some of the pastoral, chamber folk feel of Almanac too. The biggest compliment that I can pay to the acoustic CD is to say that I am entranced and where this the new album in its own right it wouldn't disappoint at all.

But it isn't. As I return to the main event, there's a feeling that it's given me that I can't shake. It takes me back to my childhood and oddly to another Australian connection. It's like listening to The Seekers... But hold on! Lest you think I've lost the plot it's the effect that their music had on me amidst all of the Merseybeat and Dave Clarke Five of my childhood, this acoustic quartet made some of the most memorable tunes. I still know what hearing I'll Never Find Another You, A World of Our Own and Morningtown Ride made me feel. Musically there's no comparison, but listening to Dear River, I return to that feeling and start my love affair with music all over again.

21 June 2013