Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo - Dear River - God Is In The TV

You've already seen and heard Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo. You might not know it, but you have. You will have heard her, when you were flicking through channels of an evening a couple of years ago, and paused to let the Wallander or Shadow Line themes play, because there was something in her voice that defied you to skip past it. And you definitely saw them on that Glastonbury Tor-mimicking hill in the Olympic Stadium, playing with Frank Turner as Danny Boyle's amazing opening ceremony kicked off London 2012. They've been - quietly, but indisputably, if you consider those viewing figures - part of the national soundtrack for some time.

Barker's song and storytelling has long been threaded through with lost love, right back to the first track on the group's first album (‘This is how it's meant to be / Apparently...' - the word ‘apparently' never had a more bitter taste than it did there). Both of those award-winning TV soundtracks already mentioned had the same aching heart to them; and in Fields of June her voice was the one doing the spurning.

Dear River also has plenty of broken hearts, but there's a big change, and not just because of the professional label. Maybe it's that Olympic experience, or a more personal achievement (this is the first release of songs written after Barker's wedding to her collaborator Dom Coyote) - either way, the lyrical ‘I' voice which drove in nearly every previous Red Clay Halo song, now largely takes a backseat to the communal ‘we'.

This is most striking on Everywhen, a song which calls on those who'll hear it to ‘confront our history' - ‘the broken record repeating/ That this land is empty'; a direct reference to the Terra Nullius doctrine which displaced the aboriginals of her home country.

Throughout the record Barker is no longer singing not just about being ‘12,000 miles away from your smile' (as she did in Nostalgia) but about the things which pull people thousands of miles apart, and their visceral effects. ‘This ground I now own / From here you must leave' orders the settler in the A Spadeful of Ground - the plucked strings behind it as deceptively sweet as a politician's promise. ‘We fled towns on fire, with stomachs empty / Crossed borderlines...' could be any refugees in almost any time and place.

There are breathers. Title track Dear River, in particular, seems a tame choice of lead track, and more emphatically so for being the one standing at the front of the album and giving its name. The curtains are really flung open with the bracing Tuesday, which comes second - and its desperate (but exhilarating) refrain, ‘We've gotta run, dear' is a truer motif for the LP than the first's voluntary ‘Won't you take me out of here?'. If you've heard the title song and decided the album isn't for you on that basis, try starting again at track 2.

Musically, the country feel is still there, but there's more kick now - it's more Fleetwood Mac than Fleet Foxes, not least in the punctuating ‘sha!' that closes the first chorus of Everywhen. Barker could almost be channeling Stevie Nicks, there. She totally gets away with it, too! The Red Clay Halo also assert their presence more on this album than on the previous records. Seen live, especially, EB&TRCH is better thought of as a quartet than a singer with a backing band.

It's certainly a political record at least as much as a personal one; its 11 songs obsessed with place, with displacement, and the way the human animal claims its territory. As an Australian transplant in the UK, Emily knows more about this than most. In the wake of revelations that the government of her adopted country has a working group specifically tasked with making the UK a ‘hostile environment' for migrants; and that the one in her homeland has banned refugees from landing in Australia at all, it couldn't be more timely.

22 July 2013