Brona's a singer and harpist from Co. Down who's lived much of her life in London; she's previously best known to me through her membership (for almost a decade) of The London Lasses, although I've since learnt that her other musical projects include post-folk trio Littlebow and a cappella group Rún. But assuredly the biggest clue as to the nature (pun intended) of her debut solo album lies in its title, for it's a philosophical statement whereby she reflects tellingly on the deep connection between the natural world and the man-made world and the effect of human behaviour on its well-being. She does this extremely beguilingly, both through her own compositions and through highly unusual, teasingly experimental treatments of folksongs of predominantly Irish (sometimes English) origin.
The common preconception of the harp-wielding chanteuse tends to conjure up an image of someone like Joanna Newsom, and while there's a certain kinship between the ladies in terms of their intense individuality, the music of Brona is altogether less idiosyncratic, impenetrable and forbidding, distinctly enchanting and rather more sweetly approachable. Even so, it's not necessarily a smooth ride for the unprepared listener, with its often peculiarly experimental character and methods. Musically Brona admits to deriving as much inspiration from electronica artists Colleen and Tunng as from Bert Jansch and John Martyn, while drawing the principal sensibility for her poetic vision (and several of her song titles too) from W.B. Yeats, notably his concept of an ethereal, faery "Celtic phantasmagoria". The curiously stimulating, strange soundscape of Brona's music is genuinely other-worldly, for it transports you to a spiritual realm where boundaries between fantasy and reality, fact and story, are blurred and hazy. Her singing voice is deceptively delicate, somehow getting under your skin to penetrate soul as well as mind (in this regard I was sometimes reminded of the hushed, chilling yet mesmerising tones of Rachel & Becky Unthank). This unsettling quality arises out of the often startling imagery Brona invokes (like the description of pylons as "electric trees", for instance).
Although the overall climate of the album could possibly be described as dreamlike - as outlined in the mystical, eastern-modal opening song When The Angels Wake You and the insistent drifting electronic echoes that usher in the title song - there's abundant life and energy too, with some unusually driven rhythmic juxtapositions that prove quite challenging - and surprising, as on the decidedly jazzy swing of The Flower Of Magherally which takes off from a Strawberry Fields-flutey intro, the pulsating slide reverberances offsetting the cool CSN-style harmonies of And The Glamour Fell On Her and the lyrical, rippling shimmering (almost laid-back) lilt of A Jug Of Punch. Broken Like The Morning is a gorgeous, darkly mellow folk-pastoral which draws to a time-stopping a cappella close, while Under The Pines imagines the sound of barking echoing off trees in a pine forest. In terms of treatment, maybe the most recognisably orthodox of the "arranged" folksongs is Newry Mountain, although its evenly expressive vocal line carries its own complementary momentum and hypnotic impact; in contrast, Molly Brannigan is borne aloft on a disturbed, fragmented electronic beat.
The scoring Brona adopts inevitably places much value on the deft, limpid swooning textures of her harp, often in tandem with flute (played by her Littlebow colleague Keiron Phelan) and incorporating eerily lush string arrangements by violinist Richard Curran; she also occasionally deploys Hutch Demouilpied (on trumpet), Anne Garner (ambient singer/songwriter) and producer Myles Cochran (on slide guitar and drums).The album also contains a floating, almost Satie-esque instrumental track that wins the award for the longest and most obscure title - The Vast And Vague Extravagance That Lies At The Bottom Of The Celtic Heart.
On We Are The Wildlife, Brona's timeless (and tireless) psycho-geographic quest for the meaning and nature of "the Celtic heart" is potently voiced in music of subliminal beauty. Something of a landmark album, I say.
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