Bridie Jackson & The Arbour
Album: Bitter Lullabies
Label: Self Released
Tracks: 9

This album came out a little over a year ago, and for some weird reason it entirely escaped my radar. The existence of Newcastle-based Bridie and her cool little arboreal troupe was only finally brought to my attention when they got signed to Debt Records and I was invited to review their Scarecrow single (see elsewhere on these pages); at which point, duly entranced and motivated, I began the backtracking process at once. And I've not been able to get their amazing 2011 debut album Bitter Lullabies off my player ever since. It really is that captivating. It's also almost like nothing I've ever heard before (and I've heard an awful lot of music over the past half-century!)… And if it doesn't fair stop you in your tracks first, it will absolutely demand your attention (notwithstanding its air of immense latent, understated power), and need your uninterrupted concentration too. It's an exciting record, but not in the usual (zap-pow) sense of that word…

Instrumentation is a touch eccentric, if not entirely unconventional, making great capital out of mournful cello and violin, bassoon, Spanish-style guitar, occasional piano, mandolin and "bell plates". And Bridie's lyrics, with masterful economy, fairly drip expressionist sensitivity and strike an edgy but satisfying balance between a fragile surrealism and the intensely personal.

Opening song We Talked Again starts with the soothing pulse of a glockenspiel (sounding remarkably like a celeste), upon which floats Bridie's voice like a lullaby, only gradually becoming more animated (and anxious) with the introduction of a cello and vocal harmonies into the proceedings. The album's near-title-track then follows like a hand into the glove placed there by the opener, with gorgeous, if unsettling harmonies and Bridie's own voice tenderly keening, bitterly offsetting some disquietingly rippling harp-like guitar figures. The slightly claustrophobic mood then carries on into Promises Are Broken, where a more spacious acoustic halo cocoons a choral sound that's remarkably reminiscent of Russian orthodox church music (albeit lacking in the sonorous "Bortnyansky bass" resonances), the setting being disarming in its sense of sanguine calm amidst inner struggle. The decidedly strange Aliens ushers in a rising progression on a forlorn solo bassoon, which proves no preparation for the raw-toned banshee wail of Bridie's sinister, frenetic quasi-tango that feels truly, yes, alien and dislocated, a flamenco-style guitar lashing out against the world with bassoon and violin counterpoint trying to calm things down; all the while dancing to some extraordinary imagery.

The Burden Of Survival seems almost to continue where We Talked Again left off, its oblique child's-eye-view taking on a nightmarish turn with Bridie's acerbic wanderings, that the restless, almost minimalist backdrop doesn't quite manage to convey. The queasy depiction of The Woman With Milk Teeth is a flamboyant Goya-esque creation, following which Mucky, the most lively of the nine songs, embellishes some Roches-like harmonies with a uke-friendly yabba-da rhythm to convey the euphoric sensation of being "on cloud eight-and-a-half". The primitive a cappella thrust of Please Forgive Me My Human Ways comes on like mutant gospel or one of those Lomax recordings of shouty prison worksongs, after the catharsis of which the revelatory ballad All You Love Is All You Are bestows four minutes of gently sensuous beauty, with its ethereal shifting, drifting vocal cadences enchant and disturb in equal measure. Is that really the end? Sadly, it is - and it really feels like there should be more. Much more. You can get an even more luscious re-recording of that final track, on the Scarecrow single (reviewed last month), and there are whispers of an impending new full-lengther. I'm almost beside myself with anticipation, cos the stark yet ravishingly luxuriant Bitter Lullabies is just brilliant.

David Kidman