JOSIENNE CLARKE and BEN WALKER
Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour (2014/download only in USA)
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You've heard me say it before, but I'll repeat it: Josienne Clarke is the next Sandy Denny. She and her guitar sidekick Ben Walker have won all manner of awards in Britain after their stunning 2013 release Fire and Fortune and that's as it should be. It also means that some serious cash was thrown into the follow-up, Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour. That's mostly a good thing, but sometimes the extra production gets in the way of the two things we want to hear most: Ms. Clarke's voice and Mr. Walker's accomplished acoustic guitar. The newest record is filled with cello, viola, fiddle, sax, flute, oboe, piano, trumpet, French horn and double bass, yet somehow the tracks that linger most are the simplest ones.
Clarke stretches her repertoire on this album on material that sounds time-tested, yet only three of the thirteen tracks are traditional, and Clarke penned the rest. Let's just add songwriting to her list of talents, shall we? The album opens with the elegant "Silverline," which has the lilt of a ballad from the Romantic Age and a passel of strings to enhance that feel. Clarke shows off a soprano voice that has clarity few can match. (Judy Collins comes to mind). Then she deftly cuts to the aptly named "A Simple Refrain," that is mostly her voice, Walker's backing falsetto, and his tasteful riffs. Then it's "I Would Not Be a Rose," that will start the Sandy Denny debates anew. It's also a Clarke original, though you'll swear it's drawn from a traditional well. And so it goes for another ten glorious tracks. As noted, Clarke does break out of the folk goddess mold from time to time. She gets a tad jazzy on "I Never Learned French," tosses in a bit of Americana giddy up on "Moving Speeches," and is downright torchy on "Water to Wine." But what she does best is use that supple voice of hers to make us weep, weep, weep. Check out the drop-dead gorgeousness of the melody of "The Tangled Tree." And then there are those three trads—"I Wonder What's Keeping My True Love Tonight," "Queen of Hearts," and "Let No Man Steal Your Thyme." The first of these was covered by Kate Rusby and it's not a patch on what Clarke has done with it—Clarke's that good! Clarke and Walker go Renaissance court music on "Queen of Hearts," complete with recorder interludes. "Let No Man Steal Your Thyme" is an old song also known as "Spring of Thyme" and refers to a warning to maidens to protect their virginity. Among the many who have sung this are Anne Briggs, actress Carey Mulligan, and Jacqui McShee, but few have done so with Clarke's innocence or her ability to convey enormous power and fragility in the same breath.
The only thing that prevents me from declaring Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour a masterpiece is my sense that, like just about every artist who has gone this route, at some point in the future Clarke and Walker are likely to see it as overdone in places. (I'd concur on "Mainland" and "Earth and Ash and Dust.") Put another way, you don't need a beer chaser if someone hands you a perfect single-malt. Do I gush over Josienne Clarke? Guilty as charged. Take a listen and join me on the crying stool.