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Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker
Album: Overnight
Label: Rough Trade
Tracks: 13

Sure, I was expecting this new offering from Josienne and Ben to be mighty good (understatement!), but even with that slightly exaggerated level of preconception Overnight absolutely stopped me in my tracks and held me in thrall right through to its close before I could even contemplate focussing my attention on anything else. It’s Josienne and Ben’s debut album for Rough Trade (who released the duo’s vinyl-and-digital-only EP Through The Clouds earlier this year), and signals an even more ambitious approach to the discipline of chamber-folk arrangement, which here proves an increasingly innovative vehicle for the duo’s songs. These extraordinary masterpieces of telling, economical writing would be attention-grabbing in any musical setting – indeed, starker, more minimalist backdrops have been a feature of Josienne and Ben’s previous albums and of their live performances – but on this new offering the deftly configured, layered instrumental colourings are utilised within a series of aromatic vignettes that dovetail uncannily with the subject matter and mood of each individual song while revealing a wealth of subliminal detail on each and every replay. The lush yet selective orchestrations variously involve eight different musicians (in addition to Josienne and Ben themselves), between them playing double bass, piano/Rhodes/Hammond, drums/percussion, viola, cello, French horn, euphonium and bass clarinet. Ben himself, of course, excels with his trademark meticulous, intricate and incredibly sensitive acoustic and electric guitar work, both reflecting and counterpointing the meticulous precision and expressive nuances of Josienne’s sublime singing. For there can be no question that Josienne’s one of the very finest singers on today’s acoustic scene; with her heart-stopping delivery, she responds to every last nuance of the lyrics with an insistent immediacy of emotion and through unerring expressive elegance, rising effortlessly to the self-imposed challenges of the sometimes crazily eccentric melodic contours (and making it all sound completely natural in the process).

The album’s twelve songs – eight originals by Josienne (two of these joint with Ben) and four covers (including two creative “re-inventions”) – together form, and serve as, a snapshot of the endless cycle of night into day and back again, its astronomical configurations often invoking emotional correspondences and constantly shifting perspectives like the clouds in the atmosphere. One can’t fail to observe that the spirit of Sandy Denny infuses much of the album, especially in its early stages: an unearthly mystique that seems to reach in from another dimension and grab one’s ears with its uniquely pindrop aura. That spirit pervades the drifting, tumbling rhythms of Nine Times Along, which embody a mood of restless stasis where nothing seems to happen until the cathartic upward shift on the phrase “the sun comes up”. Something Familiar possesses a lilting soulful country feel that initially reassures, though finally leaving Josienne’s tender voice fragile and exposed when the instrumentation abandons her and drops away for the final lines, emphasising the very ephemerality of the backdrop of “the day we’ve just had” (since after all “nothing can bring back the hour”). Keening viola and cello usher in the exhortation Sweet The Sorrow, with its obvious deliberate Denny resonance through the use of her own title “no more sad refrains” in its opening line. Dawn Of The Dark conveys the paradox of opening our eyes to the darkness, but in music that opens up into an eerie, ethereal expanse of light (psychedelic keyboard overlaid with chillingly glacial, piercing recorders).

Josienne and Ben’s revelatory cover of Gillian Welch’s Dark Turn Of Mind delivers its exercise in self-awareness to a desolate chamber-folk backing, which fits brilliantly into the sequence as a prelude to the delicately mournful John Dowland lute song Weep You No More Sad Fountains, exquisitely voiced by Josienne, with deliquescent guitar ripplings bedecked with pleading double bass and gentle piano. The dreamlike ambience of The Light Of His Lamp employs some strangely out-of-the-corner-of-the-ear aural effects, leading on to the second of the album’s reinventions, Sleep. Originally by WW1 poet and song composer Ivor Gurney, this song is here intensely movingly rendered by Josienne with a truly fantastic poise and an impeccable control of the tricky melodic line. Interestingly, Ben’s guitar brings a lute-like texture to the duo’s cover of Jackson C. Frank’s Milk And Honey, imparting an aura of courtly art-song (while Josienne’s saxophone brings a touch of chanson to the arrangement). The Waning Crescent’s cool vocal introduction is succeeded by a retro poppy Bacharach-bossanova bringing a touch of lightness to its soothing, almost confessional character; Josienne here is voicing the thoughts of the moon herself, simpering and slightly self-pitying as she contemplates her role in the universal scheme of things. Overnight, with its spacey keyboard backdrop, floats uneasily in a wavering state of elusive sleepiness that’s just waking. The twisting, sinuous, broken melody of the closing song in the cycle Light Of Day doesn’t provide the expected resolution (or indeed any kind of assuaging), but instead evokes a kind of timeless limbo, and despite the art-song precision of the instrumental episode Josienne returns us almost to where we began, leaning uncertainly (if inevitably) “toward the simple light of day”.

While the compelling purely musical charms of this intelligently configured song-cycle will clearly not disappear Overnight, praise is also due for the intense, intricate layered beauty of the artwork where the photographic montage mirrors those very qualities in the music within. So hold the year best-of lists, and make room for Josienne and Ben…!

David Kidman