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Emily Barker And The Red Clay Halo - Dear River (Album Review)

Thursday, 13 June 2013 Written by James Ball

There are a handful of very simple rules when it comes to creating a great album; the songs must be from the heart, they must connect with their audience and filler is a no no. Emily Barker and her band have nailed them on 'Dear River'.

Championed by folk-punk legend-in-waiting Frank Turner, Barker put in plenty of hard graft prior to 'Dear River' to self-finance three albums and build a committed fanbase. Turner is such a fan, in fact, that Barker performed alongside him at the opening ceremony of the London Olympic and Paralympic games in 2012.

The album opens with the title track, and it meanders with a little gusto through something that the Pierces could easily have written. It’s good, solid, and unspectacular, although it does provide a toe-tapping intro to what turns out to be a fine full-length. It’s the heavy, hefty Tuesday that really kicks the album off. The use of  cello provides dark tension, and its unrelenting pace makes you wonder exactly what you’re listening to. Is it folk? Is it country? Is it rock? It’s bloody good, whatever it is.

After plenty of variety across the opening two tracks, the listener is tended to a little more gently with a beautiful, stripped back love song in Letters. Much like KT Tunstall’s utterly brilliant 'Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon' album, it’s deep, gorgeous and haunting.

The song forces you to listen, gripping you with vulnerable tones and delicate guitar. The Leaving sticks to the slower pace but is a little more by-the-book. It’s not bad by any stretch, but it can't quite reach the heights of its predecessors.

Luckily, Everywhen is an instant favourite, a real stormer with breakneck violins and a simple, effective drumbeat. The reverb-heavy, twinkling Sleeping Horses is up next an provides another change of pace. The vocal harmonies, combined with a single electric guitar melody and droning bass, tug at the heartstrings.

Ghost Narrative is a simple, upbeat country song that slips by relatively unnoticed before A Spadeful of Ground brings a host of playful charm. A series of plucky guitar licks surround the incredible vocal line but it's just a warm up for the album's undoubted highlight. Tracks grab you every once in a while, and Cormorant And The Heron is one of them. Wistful, warm, yet never fully sure of itself, it’s a soul-twisting slice of brilliance.

In The Winter I Returned and The Blackwood close proceedings and for 30 seconds or so during the latter, you feel as though the band might go right back to folk's roots and an A capella style. It’s almost a disappointment when it kicks in, but it works on the whole.

Put simply, this album is not perfect. There’s so much packed in here that no two songs sound the same, and while we can’t accuse Emily Barker of being slack a handful of the tracks end up overawed by the album's highlights. It’s a minor complaint, and shouldn’t put you off from sampling what is a wonderful album from an artist who clearly follows the fourth rule: Make sure you care about the music you make.   

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