There can be no pun unturned when it comes to writing flippant music reviews, but the bright and airy songs of Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker deserve better than lame references to a cheesy pop tune of yesteryear.
Listeners with ears to hear knew long ago that Clarke and Walker had something special together, and last year’s Radio 2 Folk Award for Best Duo was as heartily welcome, as it was vexingly overdue. Still, their most recent album, the string-laden Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour, was such an accomplishment that not even the crustiest elements of the British Music Commentariat could ignore it.
Josienne and Ben have since been signed to Rough Trade Records, and a new album is in the making, but first comes this taster EP for those who did not have lugs enough the first time round. The four titles are quite simply the sweetest guitar/voice duets you’ll hear this side of Blackwaterside, and they showcase several areas in which Clarke and Walker rise above the fog of faux folk.
Firstly, there is Clarke’s songwriting, which is affirmed once and for all in these bare settings. They more than stand up to the exposure, and Clarke’s voice dips and soars in the space provided by Walker’s astute accompaniment.
On songs like Done, the duo explore the depths of pathos and the misery of insecurity. Yet, it’s an adult evaluation, with a mature melody that suggests that we’re justified in continually expecting great things from them.
Silverline is stripped back here, in contrast to the lush complexity of the album version, and it takes on another persona altogether; while Hares on the Mountain has figured in their setlist for some time and features on their Seas Are Deep Album. This wry traditional tale of the “war between men and women” brings out an innate, dry wit that is as much a part of their charm as is their precise delivery.
Those who warmed to the chill gloom of Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour will have been a bit puzzled by the way that critics harped on about its melancholic mise en scène. Sure, it explores feelings of sadness, but most of the songs were probably more reflective than they were despairing.
Tangled Tree was a standout track from that recording, and it underscored Josienne Clarke’s control over strong emotions, and her knowledge of their limits. It appears here perhaps to showcase exactly those qualities in her singing. Ben Walker’s guitar playing is ominously suggestive, and it’s kept at a discreet distance from an increasingly anguished vocal. This version of Tangled Tree is sparse and exposed, but it lets us hear not one, but two, singular voices cutting cleanly through the dead air between generic folk and received wisdoms about contemporary songwriting.
We can only hope that those who think they know better will get over themselves, and recognize the skill that it takes to balance the range of feelings possible in a song, far beyond the tiresome dichotomies of happy/sad, good/bad or up/down.
Perhaps that’s why so much mainstream product sounds so utterly manic in comparison to the thoughtfulness of artists like Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker.