The latest recording from Judy is another step along the route of musical exploration that she has taken over the years. That route never follows the same path from one record to the next, and Judy has moved on from synthesiser loops (Spindle, Whorl) and explosive King Crimson arrangements (Talking with Strangers) to a very adult song and vocal style in which piano and strings provide a backing that lies somewhere between chamber music and a full performance by an orchestra.
Black Dog conjures up that strange lurking presence of depression or fear to which we are all subject, but reassures us that it’s all right to have such sentiments. Just acknowledge the Black Dog and then you can get on. It’s a salutary message, gently delivered.
Featherdancing recounts the musical childhood of Judy and her two sisters, swinging along in gentle triple time, the sound somewhere between a tea-dance and a French café. The light and airy tune and a cheerful vocal are a buoyant celebration of a time full of music and laughter.
Beautiful Child (Freya’s Song), dedicated to Judy’s grand-daughter, reflects on a new life and the future that it holds, a future on which a grandmother muses with hope and curiosity.
Crowbaby depicts the life of a fledgling bird and the challenges that it must meet in a harsh world in which a baby must grow and feed on other creatures. Fortunately, at this stage, ‘Mama Crow’ is still around to reassure her infant. Pat Mastelloto provides some slightly sinister scratching effects that are extremely bird-like in their insistence. Fripp-like guitar creates an open and empty landscape in which Judy’s vocal seeks to calm the small bird before it takes flight into its carrion future.
Driftaway is an exquisite reflection on life and partings. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful songs that I have ever heard in a lifetime of listening to music of all varieties. It drags at the heart-strings with its gentle melancholy and resignation to the fact that all things must pass. This is certainly the star track of the album.
Head Full of Stars is reminiscent of the some of Judy’s work on Giles, Giles and Fripp’s The Brondesbury Tapes and is very 1960s in its style and arrangement. A light and fanciful number strung on a high-wire of soaring guitar and synthesiser.
Silence is a song about intense loneliness. Violin, viola and cello lend an appropriate Eleanor Rigby-style melancholy to the backing, but there is none of the bouncing-triplet jollity of the Beatles’ number here. This is a dark and sad song.
Letters is cleverly-woven duet between two lovers whose missives have gone astray. Despite positive feelings for each other, the couple are doomed forever to remain apart. Matt Malley provides the male side of the duet, his light and pleasant voice conveying a gentle disappointment in the turn which events that have taken. The fade-out of syncopated drums suggests a degree of chaos thrown into the lives of the participants.
Wintersong recounts the memories of a lost love. Gentle reminiscence is accompanied by piano and cello to give just the right level of bitter-sweetness.
It is unusual to find an album in which the cover reflects a song and actually enhances it. The exquisite art-work of Catherine Hyde, Jackie Morris, Hannah Willow and the glass work of Tamsin Abbott adorn the sleeve of the record and its liner notes, and these are celebrated in Sisterhood of Ruralists, the collective title of this modern-day creative collective of Pre-Raphaelite-like artists.
Full credit to Alistair Murphy, who produced the record, for his choice of backing musicians and arrangers, as well as his own performances. With musicians from King Crimson,Counting Crows and Spiritualized among others, you can scarcely go wrong, and Alistair’s clear and rich production allows the musicians to shine in their own right.
This is a mature album, a long way from Fairport Convention or Morning Way. Here there is none of the flim-flam of young love, teenage angst or Tolkienesque fantasy. Like Talking with Strangers, Judy’s previous album, this is a serious depiction of what life brings or throws at you, an album of experience, an album of reflection. It is also an album of moods, some of them dark, others lighter and celebratory. Like most of Judy’s albums, it doesn’t fit neatly into any musical category. Thank goodness! In subject-matter, arrangements and balance, this record shows exactly what Judy is known for, namely originality. Add it to that growing shelf of her recordings.
Ian Maun - July 2013