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Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker: Overnight
by George Graham
(Rough Trade As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/30/2016)
The English folk scene, as personified by groups like Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and the Pentangle had its ascendancy in the late 1960s and early Seventies. While the style was more popular in the UK than on this side of the Atlantic, the genre has maintained a kind of cult following here. The style’s best-known performers, such as Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny and Nick Drake have proven to have had a lasting influence on other artists. Not surprisingly, the style has lingered on the music scene in various dark little corners away from the bright lights of the commercial pop music industry. Some of the surviving original artists continue to make music, while periodically performers emerge from both sides of the Atlantic carrying on the influence with varying degrees of new twists. In the past couple of years, we have had worthwhile recordings by the bands Snowgoose and the Staves, as well as singer-songwriters like John Doyle from Ireland, Sarah McQuaid and Kate Rusby from the UK, and Ryley Walker and Victoria Blythe from the USA.
This week we have another worthwhile album from a duo who draw on the English folk scene for their principal influence, especially in terms of the female vocal approach. They are Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, and their CD release, their first full-length album to be issued in the US, is called Overnight.
Josienne Clarke grew up in a musical family in Sussex. Her father was a folksinger himself. Ms. Clarke studied classical voice and sang with choirs, but was not surprisingly attracted to folk and rock. Ben Walker studied classical guitar before playing in a number of rock bands, then getting back to acoustic guitar and unabashedly drawing on the influence of some of the English folk pickers like Richard Thompson, Bert Jansch and Martin Simpson. So with influences like that, the osmosis of the English folk-scene was more or less inevitable, with some classical influence also present.
By 2012 the London-based duo was achieving some prominence. Ms. Clarke won a BBC Folk award in 2012, and the duo won a similar award in 2015. Overnight in their sixth release, including some EPs.
The new album features mainly original material, but they also cover some unexpected pieces, including one by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and one by the 16th Century English composer John Dowland. Ben Walker is the principal instrumentalist on various guitars and keyboards, with Ms. Clarke concentrating on the vocals, but interestingly, she plays the saxophone on one piece. The mostly acoustic instrumentation includes a small string ensemble and some classical brass instruments. Walker does the arrangements, which turn out to be especially worthwhile and a nice setting for Ms. Clarke’s sometimes plaintive vocals. The publicity included with the album indicates that most of it was recorded live in the studio with minimal overdubbing, which I think helps to underscore its organic and authentic sound. A close listen can pick out a few little flaws here and there, but it gives the album charm as well as musical honesty, of which there is not much on today’s computer-generated pop scene. Stylistically, the group tries different things, including going retro-electric on one track, with a kind of classical quality on several others. The album has a kind of lyrical theme which runs through it, based on its title Overnight. Though the songs are independent of one another, most make reference to parts of the day. Ms. Clarke is the main songwriter, though she and Walker share songwriting credits on two of the non-cover compositions.
Opening is a piece called Nine Times Along one of the more electric-sounding tracks. Ben Walker shows some of his Richard Thompson and Mark Knopfler influence on guitar, while Josienne Clarke’s vocal embodies the kind of classic cool, but plaintive English folk style in the Sandy Denny tradition. <<>>
On the other hand, a lot more in intimate in sound is a piece called Something Familiar. It’s a contemplative waltz about sadness from the end of a romance. <<>>
A string trio provides most of the musical backdrop to another melancholy piece, Sweet the Sorrow. Again,. Ms Clarke and the group put in a fine performance. <<>>
The Gillian Welch-David Rawlings tune that Clarke and Walker cover is Dark Turn of Mind, which they turn from the kind of traditional almost Appalachian approach of the original into another piece with some classical influence with the string group. <<>>
The composition from John Dowland, who as a contemporary of Shakespeare, is Weep You No More Sad Fountain. It can be reminiscent at times of old liturgical music, with a more contemporary approach and some altered harmonies. Ms. Clarke takes an interesting direction vocally, doing it in a very understated, low-keyed manner, quite the opposite of the classical choral style one would expect. It gives an almost haunting quality to the piece. <<>>
The duo comes up with another twist on The Light of His Lamp, which features a kind of jazz piano trio plus acoustic guitar. While it’s not Ms. Clarke’s best vocal performance on the album, the overall effect is quite memorable. <<>>
The one track that is a kind of odd man out is The Waning Crescent, which has a lot more electronics on it, and gets into a kind of early 1960s Space Age mellow pop sound. It’s about as close to a throwaway track as the album has. Interestingly, the record company is promoting the tune as the album’s single. <<>>
The record concludes with a kind of natural lyrical destination to the album’s title Overnight. The tune is called Light of Day. The introspective piece has an almost mournful accompaniment of the low string instruments and classical guitar. <<>>
For a long-time fan like myself, it’s nice to see that the English folk influence continues in the hands of younger artists, almost 50 years after the genre’s appearance in the late 1960s. While Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker’s new album Overnight, may not be an authentic recreation of the original style, it’s nice that the duo has absorbed the influences of the scene, and applied their own creativity to it with very nice results. Ms. Clarke’s vocal style shows some of the same timeless qualities of the great women vocalists who came out of the scene like Sandy Denny, June Tabor and Linda Thompson. Ben Walker’s arrangements are first rate, and at the string scores can at times bear a resemblance to those on the late Nick Drake’s records. All in all, Overnight is an outstanding album that borrows from the classic and adds new ingredients.
Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. Most of the time the sound is clean and intimate, in keeping with the performance. Effects are generally under control, but there are a few instances of fooling around with the sound which could have been avoided, and the vocal on the opening track has a little distortion on it, apparently from careless recording, rather than intent. Dynamic range is better than average
Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker have been attracting a fair amount of attention in the UK for their English folk-influenced music. It’s nice that their new album is now being distributed in the US, helping to keep us fans of the genre happy.
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