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Julie MurphyJulie Murphy
Album: Every Bird That Flies
Label: Shells In The Ocean
Tracks: 9
Website: http://www.juliemurphymusic.com

This latest, long-awaited solo album from Fernhill's Julie Murphy possesses an extraordinary, intense power that captivates from the outset and never lets up. It could be described as pure chamber folk, in that Julie's compelling singing voice is but sparely accompanied (this being in best lieder/art-song tradition, except in the fact that she accompanies herself on piano virtually throughout rather than engaging a separate pianist-as-accompanist, and thereby she even more closely immerses herself in the musical argument that supports the lyrics). Her delivery ensures that the listener hangs on each note and nuance, and yet hers is a vocal styling that never draws attention to itself in the process. Julie's only other instrumental accompaniment comes from Ceri Owen Jones' trombone and Aidan Thorne's double bass, and these elements are sparingly and tellingly applied for maximum impact.

The disc's nine tracks are bookended by Julie's uniquely compelling personal takes on a pair of traditional songs, The Mermaid and Willie Taylor. The former is a revisit of the lead track from her late-2014 EP, which although sporting a comparable vox-and-piano arrangement now seems to demonstrate an even keener appreciation of the text that the passage of time has enabled; its former 40-second piano prelude has been abandoned, instead the narrative now launches straight in after a sequence of repeated notes, and at a slightly more urgent pace too. Willie Taylor allows Julie's voice even fuller expressive rein, her vocal light and shade being exposed, and mirrored by, only the sympathetic nuances of Aidan's double bass (there being no piano on this track). Equally fine is the third traditional track, the disc's balancing centrepiece: a version of the ballad of May Colvin (learnt from the singing of Jean Ritchie) where the urgent, inevitable momentum of the tale is generated by insistent piano arpeggios.

And yet, Julie's stature as a songwriter of true compassion and insight is unarguably evidenced on the remaining six tracks, where she delivers her thoughts on political concerns (the perennial massacring of innocent individuals in the name of war, on standout song The Fall, which seems to contain echoes of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata refracted through its uncertain, shifting piano meanderings, as well as snatches of a Welsh lullaby and a song Julie learned from a young Palestinian singer), and at the other end of the spectrum her percipient reflections on the empowering nature of the creative spirit present in humanity (on When Georgia Paints, which not only namechecks the American painter Georgia O'Keeffe and singers Nina Simone and Amy Winehouse but also brings in a quote from a poem by Emily Dickinson). To A Little Girl finds the experiences of Julie's grandfather mingle with her inner meditation on the connections of blood relations, by way of the process of calling up her own childhood memories, while This Seaside Town is personally referential in a more Lal Waterson kind of way, to the backdrop of a nagging piano (tolling-bells) motif. Tonderai Ndira, on the other hand, celebrates, through animated syncopated rhythms (and a touch of mbira), the Zimbabwean campaigner and dissident/activist who was murdered in 2008.

Every Bird That Flies is an immediate and intimate - and yet also immaculately modest - artistic statement, one of genuine gravitas. Ostensibly entirely in awe of its own deliberate starkness, it manages to be truly magnificent in its scope and breadth of emotions. An album to really live with, and then an experience to relive with increasing satisfaction and renewed appreciation.

David Kidman