Having spent the last three years rearranging traditional music, joined by Frances Sladen on vocals, guitarist Nathan Greaves, bass players Tom Mason and Oliver Whitehouse, Edward Simpson on bass drum, melodeonist Paul Young and Katriona Gilmore contributing fiddle and mandolin, the France-born, York-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Joshua Burnell returns to his own material for an album of songs inspired by those who, past and present, have found beauty in even the hardest of times. The title stems from a podcast in a series called Family Ghosts in which a Japanese-American woman who’d been interned during WWII recalled how, forced to live in stables, the prisoners grew flowers to brighten their ugly reality.
The opening number, the strummed link-arms swayalong Labels, was inspired by an Oxford University address by Sir Ian McKellen where he stated “the only label any of us needs is our name”. Burnell sings “There’s only one animal foolish enough/In spite of itself to put labels on love/So throw your labels away/’Cos love has no use for them”.
By way of shift of subject matter, dressed up in jittery piano keys, electric guitar and strident drums, falsetto flourishes, cooing backing vocals and Sladen joining on lead, Le Fay concerns the ambiguous figure of Morgan Le Fay, the enchantress of Arthurian legend variously portrayed as benefactor and antagonist. From myth to historical fact, The Ballad of Mark Jeffrey, featuring Gilmore’s mandolin, is a rhythmically choppy number in the style of a traditional broadside transportation ballad about the convicted titular 19th century Cambridgeshire burglar who was sent to work as a gravedigger on Tasmania’s Isle of the Dead and reputedly had a run in with the Devil.
Featuring Gilmore on fiddle and Burnell on Steinway Grand, adopting the metaphor of a fulmar (a seabird), the waltzing Invisible Wings is a gentler, softer affair about inspirational figures, moving on to Run To Me (on which the album’s papercut styled cover is based), a slow-paced, strings-adorned song that recounts his and his partner Fe’s experience of taking to their heels after seeing likely poachers with guns while out exploring a ruined fortress in Yorkshire, and of a deer briefly joining them in flight. Sladen sings the softer chorus and lines about “when summer days were bright and growing long” and Burnell the darker ones (“they say don’t break away from the pack/Or else you’ll feel our bullets in your back”), as the musical dynamics shift and build to a crescendo on a song about investing trust and facing life and its dangers together.
Social commentary takes centre stage with the musically dramatic Let Me Fall Down, Burnell on piano playing the Berlin cabaret emcee role on a number about greed as he asks “do you water the tree to watch it grow?/Or do you wait for the blossom, then call it your own?” adding the cautionary note that “when you pick all the apples and feast on the prize/Don’t forget that maggots turn into flies”.
In thematic contrast, the piano and watery acoustic guitar picked Outside shifts from selfishness to sharing, returning to narrative form with Young providing melodeon for the perfect traditional pastiche of Joan of the Greenwood. With its dark and murderous supernatural denouement, the song teaches that, if the injured maiden you rescue from lying in the road warns that her assailant was your husband to be, then you should take heed and not cast her back into the dirt and blindly proceed to your fate.
The album ends with, first, another transportation ballad, driven by resonant piano notes and a persistent skittering percussive beat, which while hewing to traditional notes, is set in the future with convicts deported from some unnamed planet to serve their time on an Earth rendered barely habitable by climate change. Yet it’s from this number that the album title - and hence the note of light in the darkness - arises.
Finally, the Steinway piano in the spotlight, comes Two Stars, a Bowie-tinged parable about how visitors from the skies came to an ancient land “where waiting dreams lay in sleep” and “And all the time that they were there/Music and laughter rang through the air” and “Gradually like wick to flame/Songs were spun and people danced in the blaze”, only to finally depart.
But, encapsulating the album’s notion of those shooting stars who bring life and hope to those in their orbit, the music shimmers and soars to the heavens as they look back on the places they have visited and “they see the old town fiercely shines/For everywhere those two stars have been/Music rings and their light is seen”.
Like the album, it’s a stellar experience.Mike Davies
Self-released September 4 2020. Mixed by Ed Simpson and Joshua Burnell.
2. Le Fay
3. The Ballad of Mark Jeffrey
4. Invisible Wings
5. Run With Me
6. Let Me Fall Down
8. Joan Of The Greenwood
9. Look At Us Now
10. Two Stars