(5 / 5)
I referenced Sally Barker in a review I wrote at the weekend, of another female singer-songwriter; where I said that for me, there has been three GREAT British female folk voices in my lifetime: Sandy Denny, Maddy Prior and Sally Barker.
But making sure to clarify there were and are many, many, many fabulous ladies singing folk – Lisbee Stainton and Megan Henwood stand out for me among the current and younger women in folk who possess an uber-talent. But for those who deserve “the legendary voice of…” before their name, the three names I give here are “it” for me.
So a day or so after I am mentioning Sally, she pops up on this new album where she shares the billing with US guitarist and songwriter Vicki Genfan. “In The Shadow Of A Small Mountain” delivers nine tracks; eight penned by the pair and one by Sally on her own. Two of the co-writes sees Sally’s regular collaborator Debbie Cassell join in the writing activity with the pair.
This album was brought to life by the friendship between Sally and Vicki that spans the mighty Atlantic Ocean. This project germinated over five days in the sweltering heat of a North Carolina Summer in a cabin in the shadow of Pilot Mountain at the foot of the Appalachians, was tended to during Autumn transatlantic song-writing sessions via Skype and successfully bloomed in New Jersey in January as the snow drifts settled, knee deep, at the recording studio door. The resulting record tells stories from both sides of the Atlantic with flavours of the American south infusing tales of a very British sort.
Both sing and play acoustic guitar while Vicki also plays electric guitars, manditar, banjo-tar, bass & percussion. Sally, founder member of the Poozies, has released seven solo albums and toured consistently, supporting artists such as Bob Dylan and Robert Plan. Rejecting the offer of a lucrative deal from Island Records (quick cash-in covers album) after she became the nation’s sweetheart on the BBC TV Saturday night prime time singing contest show The Voice, she stayed true to her own convictions, and released her latest solo album, “Ghost Girl”, in February 2017.
Guitar virtuoso Steve Vai agrees with me, that Vicki is a bit bloody special on guitar: “If I could play like Vicki, I’d stay home and entertain myself,” he says. Vicki holds the title of 2008 ‘Guitar Superstar’ having won the Guitar Player Magazine’s annual competition in front of celebrity judges Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Elliot Easton. She has released four solo albums, five instructional DVDs and tours throughout the US and internationally, where she has supported artists such as David Crosby, David Wilcox and Larry Carlton.
The quality and technical ability of her playing more than matches the standards that Ms Barker sets with that weapon of an instrument of hers; that voice. That same voice that made Sir Tom Jones sob with emotion, when she was on Team Tom and came second on The Voice. She wuz robbed!
The album kicks off with the lovely “Hope, Songs & Dreams”. Thick waves of acoustic guitar and Sally’s dreamy vocal, wash over you from the off, on a beautiful song. A mid-tempo and gentle way to start as you mean to go on; with class and quality. Vicki’s jazz inflected brush strokes on guitar and Sally’s sublime vocal skills complement each other well and there’s absolutely no need for cluttering up the track with anything else. It has a full sound with just the guitar, lead vocal and a smattering of Vicky’s harmonies. An even listen across the nine cuts and the energy and songwriting quality never dips.
This opening song is a tribute to British Folk legend Sandy Denny, which was inspired by a conversation via Skype, when Sally was explaining to Vicki who singer-songwriter Sandy was. Sally sings Sandy’s songs in the reformed Fotheringay and during a Skype song writing session last autumn, she tried to explain to Vicki what a unique talent Sandy had been and that explanation turned into this song. Sandy would have loved it.
Widow Sally was left with two small boys when her farmer husband died of cancer, when the lads were seven and five, and she put her music career on hold to bring them up. This song lyrically is Sally talking about her kids reaching adulthood, and how difficult it has been for her to bring them up alone and then let them go. Vicki’s mando-tar and banjo-tar gives the tune a bluegrassy, mountain music feel, which is pretty apt considering the title.
Vicki takes the lead vocal on the soulful and groove-soaked “Feels Like Flying”, which harks back to a Friday night during their teenage years of dancing and letting the hair down. Vicki plays a funky in-the-pocket bass line. There’s an infectious hook for the chorus. Her vocal tone and timbre puts me in mind of the likes of Carly Simon and Carole King.
A chilled and serene moment with “Little Red Box”, a Cassell, Barker and Genfan song, as was the previous track, “Feels Like Flying”. Like most of the material here, it straddles genres and avoids being pigeonholed into that “folk” bracket. Like Sally, she is known as a folk singer, but really, she is a singer and has spent a lot time on the folk scene, so gets lumbered with that label “folk star”. She is far more than just folk, as is this record.
On the cover of the CD is an old fashioned red telephone box, which brought back lovely memories for me of my childhood in a remote, rural village where our ‘phone box was the hub for the local kids and from nearby villages. I knew of one house near us with their own telephone. Everyone else used this one. There was a black metal box for the money and an ‘A’ and ‘B’ button, and you pressed one to connect the call and take the coins, and the other to get your coin back if no one answered. I can even still remember the ‘phone number: Blakesley 258x. I am going back 50+ years too.
Cannot remember what I walked into a room for, or where my keys are today, but I can recall that phone box, how it smelled (don’t ask), the sound the door made opening and closing and how it felt a huge part of my life back then. “Little Red Box” is a nostalgic trip down memory lane with a lament for the British red telephone boxes that used to be on every corner of the land, and remains a cornerstone of what is still stereo-typically English. They have almost died out now, with the advent of mobile telephones.
The sole song on here penned entirely by Sally, treads territory she covered extensively on her current solo album and an EP, about a broken love affair and her feelings about how she was treated. This song, “Heart Needs A Home” is the only song that was not written originally for this project. Joni Mitchell nods perhaps.
“Something Blue”, classic Sally Barker at her best, and a song that fits her like a glove. The perfect vehicle for her slinky, sassy, smooth vocals and sits on a smashing jazz vibe from Vicky’s killer acoustic guitar. The best vocal thus far and by far, where Sally’s phrasing is so sublime and so Sally B……She veers from blues Mama, to 1940s big band Diva and uses her range, which covers her spine tingling top end of the register. Lots of space left by Vicki on the guitar. The guitar parts provide a foundation but never gets in the way of the oh so gorgeous vocal.
Written by the pair, the longest track at 5.42 and it could have gone on for another 10 minutes for me; it really nailed the groove and created a faultless late night mood. Vicki’s bass guitar line and her harmony vocals adding tremendous value. The only track here with a live drummer; played skilfully and very measured by John Mettam. Although both have been married, neither Sally nor Vicki has been left at the altar. However, one day, in the midst of a brainstorming session over Skype, they began to discuss what it would feel like and that discussion turned into the lyrics for “Something Blue”.
Vicki steps up again for the main vocal on a Barker/Genfan song, “Moonshine”, which weaves a tapestry of instruments. It sits on three interwoven narratives: immigration, moonshine whisky and NASCAR racing. The Scots-Irish immigrants that settled in the Appalachian Mountains brought their whisky making skills with them to the U.S. They started using the corn that grew in abundance in the region to make their whisky, thus giving birth to ‘Moonshine’. The song reflect this heritage by book-ending the song with a Celtic jig.
The song itself tells how, during Prohibition, the teenage sons of the illegal distillers became skilled drivers while evading the law (aka ‘Revenuers’) as they transported the moonshine down the mountain to the cities. These young kids became the first NASCAR racers. I liked the musical side of the track, but I found the vocal repetition of the title “Moonshine” a bit wearing. It goes on a bit at 5.25.
There’s two guests on the superb and mesmerising penultimate cut, “Malaya”. Peter Mawanga from Malawi on vocals, nsansi and chisekese, and Andrew “Finn” Magill on vocals and low whistle. The four multi-cultural talents cast a magic spell on this track; a pretty, pacy cut with infectious African flavours. Vicki’s ‘Claw Hammer’ technique on her Emerald, short scale 12 string Amicus guitar combines with Malawian Peter Mawanga’s thumb piano, to establish an African themed harmonic foundation to the story of a young girl’s journey up a mountain. It’s trance-like and perhaps in the ballpark of Fleetwood Mac and their “Tusk” period. It’s that good too.
Finn Magill’s low whistle bringing the song its wings, infusing the beautiful but stark imagery, as it weaves in and out of nature’s landscapes. Sally’s commanding vocal and Vicki’s harmony vocal is the icing on a very tasty cake on this standout and skilfully executed track. It makes a sound like an assembled group of a dozen or more, but there’s just the four of ‘em and they make sweet music. An entire “world music” album of this stuff and this same ensemble would go down well with me. Warning: You’ll be humming or whistling the chorus to this one for weeks!
They close things nicely with a Barker and Genfan song, “Weekday Heartbreak”. A commercial, poppy and fun track, the story of a man who had one girlfriend on the weekends, and another during the week. Stick some cash in a brown envelope and leave it in a place to be agreed, and they might just tell you who this is about. It is NOT me, by the way! One’s more than enough for me at my age!!
This album is a far stronger and more even listen than Sally’s current solo album, “Ghost Girl” for me, which is good but I did find it a tad self indulgent and felt there was more focus on the lyrical content and topic about her broken relationship with a previous boyfriend, than anything else. Her emotional beauty as a singer and the ability to make you feel the songs and to literally well up with overwhelming emotion, was lost to a more aggressive and harder delivery, to fit the anger and upset of the lyrical sentiment.
But this collection more than gives her the perfect material to shine on, and brightly shine she most certainly does. But this is not a Sally Barker solo record, and Vicki brings as much to the party as Ms Barker. As writers and as artists, this is a bloody formidable pairing and it would be an utter crime if they left it here, without a shadow of a doubt. A mountain of talent x 2 (see what I did there?)
By Simon Redley
(2 / 5) ‘OK Zone’
(3 / 5) ‘Decent Zone’
(4 / 5) ‘Super Zone’
(5 / 5) ‘Awesome Zone’