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Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker
Album: Seedlings All
Label: Rough Trade
Tracks: 11

Each successive new album by Josienne and Ben is an exciting prospect – and has been such long before the stylus gets to hit the proverbial groove. Equally, each new album embodies the duo’s core philosophy of approaching the recording as if it’s their last: what Josienne herself terms a “make or break” motivation, except that this time – or at any rate at first – you might really be convinced she means it, since the album’s songs are born out of disillusionment where intense critical appreciation of the duo’s music, including the attainment of multiple award nominations had not been borne out in commercial success. So Seedlings All, Josienne and Ben’s second album for Rough Trade, is audibly the culmination of everything Josienne’s learnt, while at the same time also representing a distinct development in their music, a new toughness where once all was fragility.

And here for the first time all the songs are originals penned by Josienne herself. Just as her singing voice is breathtakingly distinctive, peerlessly clear and precise, so too is her intensely autobiographical and highly self-aware writing, with Melancholy as always her middle-name. But as ever, it’s not as simple as that, and the sheer goosebump-inducing beauty of her musical expression, though sometimes ostensibly also a touch austere, can belie the generally despondent content of her lyrics which seesaw between conflicting emotional responses and contradictory sentiments.

Opening track Chicago almost skips along by Josienne’s standards, an almost breezy electric-guitar-backed mid-tempo number cocooning a sanguine rumination on an all-too-familiar experience where “no-one came to see me play” (it actually happened to the pair in America fairly recently, against all the signs and the excellent reviews for their latest album Overnight). Out of this, at last, arises the iron-will determination to refuse to give in, to carry on in the face of adversity and “sing and play and make things, for that is all that you can do”. The diffident chiming and ambivalent funky train rhythm of Bells Ringing plays against the nagging lyric, the push-and-pull of “all we have” represented by an anguished double-vocal tussle, at length ushering in a jazzy sax solo that arguably signals a kind of acceptance. Piano atmospherics (from Josienne’s latter-day Such A Sky collaborator Kit Downes) once again play a part in the limpid, disquieting title song, drifting through a pastel haze. The plaintive nursery lilt of Maybe I Won’t, a simple yet telling meditation on both the possibility and desirability of becoming a mother, recalls both Molly Drake and Sandy Denny (the latter especially in its Old Fashioned Waltz strings-and-piano scoring).

Tender Heart, with its late-night lounge double-bass (Ruth Goller), recalls the old Ketty Lester hit Love Letters before breaking out into a cautiously cathartic piano solo. All Is Myth is probably the album’s emotional core, with Ben’s sensitive, meditative guitar responses to Josienne’s aching questioning supplemented by caressing violin and clarinet lines. On Ghost Light, glistening electric guitar and supportive drums give courage to Josienne’s desperation, while the slow-swinging vibe of Sad Day conjures something of the aura of a lady who sings the blues with an insight that deceives on measurable experience. Bathed In Light is something akin to a torch-song that captures further conflicting emotions of a crisis of the creative mind (and also contains one of Ben’s trademark piquant off-the-cuff less-is-more guitar solos), while the undeniably introspective Only Me Only closes the album in almost singsong mode, with an enigmatic mixture of defiance and resignation that leaves one hanging on for a resolution that seems to have arrived but feels inconclusive.

Much as this is undoubtedly Josienne and Ben’s album, we shouldn’t underestimate the abundantly sensitive instrumental embellishments courtesy of Kit Downes on piano and harmonium and James Maddren on drums, together with no fewer than six string players, and Andy Cutting on melodeon, nor the gorgeous backing vocals from Josienne’s PicaPica colleague Samantha Whates (the latter notably on the robust, thrusting Things Of No Use – one of just two songs penned jointly by Josienne and Ben). The breathtakingly delicate poise and heart-stopping dynamic precision of Josienne’s voice is well counterpointed by the instrumental backdrops, whose chamber-jazz-folk vibe reinforces the intimate nature of her confessionals. But Seedlings All is far from being a swansong for the duo, more the signalling of a new level of expressive empowerment. It’s something of a landmark, I suspect. So please don’t make this your last, Josienne and Ben.

David Kidman