Album review: Emily Barker – Sweet Kind Of Blue

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You may remember Emily Barker from her sweet, folk-tinged albums with The Red Clay Halo. Especially, perhaps, their foray into Nordic noir with the BAFTA award winning theme tune for the BBC crime drama, Wallander. Maybe she’s sung to you in the dark in Folk in a Box. Throwing it back further, perhaps you heard John Peel champion tracks by her alt-folk band, the-low-country [if not, Song To Drive Away To is one of the best songs you’ve never heard].

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If rock music is your thing, maybe Barker blew a whistle to grab your attention while touring with Frank Turner, or you caught her backing him up during the Olympics opening ceremony. Hopefully you were lucky enough to catch the 2012 Revival Tour and saw her rocking out with Chuck Ragan, or more recently dueting with Austin Lucas.

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Maybe you saw her performing at last year’s UK Americana Awards as a nominee for UK Album of the Year, at one of her many  Union Chapel shows, or headlining Shepherd’s Bush Empire. A little further down the country line, perhaps you discovered her as part of the sublime trio, Applewood Road. Or her scandalously underrated indie rock band, Vena Portae.

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It’s safe to say that Emily Barker doesn’t play it safe and rarely stands still (literally or figuratively). So it’s perhaps inevitable that the country-folk-Americana-indie-rock singer’s latest album is a bluesy, rootsy, soul affair. Classic Barker.

Emily Barker

Like Counting Crows’ album Saturday Night and Sunday Mornings, Barker’s new record is equal parts absolute stompers and tender tracks. Interestingly, they’re alternated rather than separated. The highs and lows, are connected. Sweet Kind of Blue, indeed.

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The album was recorded in Sam Phillips’ Memphis studio and it’s undeniably infused with the musical influences of it’s birthplace. The title track opens the album; the bass pops, the electric guitar jangles and the vocals reach for the stars. Unfortunately for Barker’s vocal chords, Sweet Kind of Blue is destined to be a live favourite.

Emily Barker

The second track, Sister Goodbye, is already a mainstay of the live set. The tribute to oft-overlooked rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe is contemplative and soulful. Starting out as a relaxed affair, it builds to showcasing Barker’s stunning vocal reach. Spellbinding.

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Back to the upbeat numbers and straight into an album highlight, Sunrise. It really captures the spirit of summer. It’s all love, laughter and leisurely roadtrips; “let’s fill our souls with the sound  of the ocean and dancing in the summer rain.” Sunrise is propelled by a killer bass line so it’s a good thing that Lukas Drinkwater is often around to do it justice live.

Emily Barker

Straight from celebrating effortless, vibrant new love, No. 5 Hurricane approaches to darken the scene. It’s an open letter to a lost love; “I got new arms to hold me/new rules to break/a new way of digging the most beautiful grave.” It’s quite a feat to distil complicated, lingering emotions into a deceptively simple song. The result is poignant, tinged with regret, and beautifully bittersweet.

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If We Forget To Dance is another vocal masterclass. Barker recently showcased the demo version which was a tender track reminiscent of In The Winter I Returned, a highlight of her album, Dear River. On the record, If We Forget To Dance has been – as Barker puts it – ‘Memphisized’ with a beat and a horn section. It’s a versatile song that could take even more; with a wall of brass it could easily become an exuberant Sturgill Simpson style stomper. Try saying that ten times fast!

Emily Barker

Crazy Life has the cadence of a waltz as the melody subtly dances around poignant lyrics: “somehow I lost you but how I really can’t say.” Importantly, though, there’s still hope: “look at the moon/it ain’t morning yet/all we have is time and how we choose to spend it/love the questions and love the game/love the streetlights as they flicker in the Tennessee rain.” The song balances acceptance with appreciation, hinting at light at the end of the tunnel.

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Testament to Barker’s talent, Over My Shoulder begins as a faithful reproduction of the live version with simple guitar picking and a tender vocal. It would be striking and memorable if it stayed that way, but when you have world-class musicians to hand it makes sense to add a sensitive string section.

With such an arresting voice, the lyrics necessarily take centre stage and Over My Shoulder evokes equal parts hope, fear and desperation. It joins the growing canon of songs inspired by the recent refugee crisis, including Ange Hardy and Lukas Drinkwater’s By The Tides and Megan O’Neill & The Common Thread’s Between The Devil and The Deep. It’s could also be seen as a companion piece to Barker’s song Letters about her grandparents’ experiences in war-torn Europe before they emigrated to Australia.

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Change is Sweet Kind of Blue’s sleeper song, the pleasing earworm of the record. At least, that is, until you hear More! You see, More! has a exclamation mark for a reason. It barrels in with vocal reach and retro exuberance.

Emily Barker

Sweet Kind of Blue is a journey of highs and lows infused with a warm Memphis vibe. Fitting for a record that’s a roller coaster of emotions, Underneath the Honey Moon is the slow before the complete stop. It will leave you wanting more, but which genre Barker will tackle next is anyone’s guess. What do you think? Suggestions in the comments, please!

Sweet Kind of Blue is out now on CD, deluxe CD and vinyl.. If you’re quick, you might get one of the sought after limited edition blue vinyls. See emilybarker.com for details and a list of live in-store dates. 

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