There’s something about the cover photo of Carnforth Station, the new album form the Jennifer Crook Trio, that had me scurrying to my CD shelves. Sure enough I found Merry-Go-Round, an album that I wrote up for the erstwhile Properganda and was much taken with at that time. It was the photo, however, with Jennifer glamorously attired against a brightly lit up background offering an almost coquettish glance back over her shoulder. For the new album cover, she strikes almost the same pose, although this time is both shrouded in the steam of an adjacent locomotive and looking set for travel rather than a proms night, with coat and hat, laden with bags and guitar case. Even if the title almost demands the picture, the more you play this brilliant new album, the more Jennifer’s backward glance gains in significance as stories swirl though the smoke.
The subtext of the titular station is that it was where Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter was filmed. In it’s original incarnation, Coward’s single act play had the deliciously double edged title Still Life and had the same late flicker of passion, ignited though a couple’s chance encounter, snuffed out by a combination of class bound strictures and untimely, inattentive and mostly unwitting interventions. It’s a clever and subtle work non-judgemental and just as equivocal as its title, especially as the eye moistening finale twists one last time. It would be bold indeed to suggest a comparison between the two writers and besides, Jennifer admits to seeing the film for the first time only as a result of the song Carnforth Station. She is nonetheless a writer with that winning equanimity of artifice and artlessness. The undertones in these songs will very quickly get under your skin with a mainline mission aiming straight for the heartstrings.
It all sounds so good as well – stop what you’re doing good. In fact my usual strategy of allowing a CD to introduce itself by playing in the background as minor chores are attended to, fell away as the CD demanded my attention. Most of these songs were written on the harp, and although Jennifer also plays guitar and banjo, the instrument is therefore a natural feature. The trio is then made up by Beth Porter on cello and fiddle and Mike Cosgrave on guitar and accordion, both also adding harmony vocals. Miranda Sykes on bass and vocals and Kevin Brown adding slide, electric and lap steel guitars both guest and the whole thing was recorded at Real World Studios, with Stephen W Tayler producing and Stuart Bruce and Leon Hunt assisting.
The fact that several of the tracks were recorded live by the core players, guests and overdubs added later, points to a notable development since Merry-Go-Round. The trio are a highly skilful and solid musical unit making the most of a stunning set of songs. Jennifer herself asserts that it’s a more authentic representation of her musical personality as she claims, “It draws on so much of my musical history and diverse influences (elements of trad Irish, bluegrass and alt country), and yet there is an overall coherence to it, as well as an honesty in both the performances and the songwriting that I feel we have really been able to capture on this record.” Whilst that assessment easily stands scrutiny, it doesn’t quite account for the magic herein, except that perhaps, the sum of the parts is somehow greater than the whole.
It’s also worth noting that this is another successful Pledge Music campaign, which given the current situation with the record industry seems to make more and more sense. Jennifer has described feeling the extra pressure of responsibility although that was balanced with early feedback and encouragement. It all happened very quickly too, taking just six weeks from the launch of the campaign through to finishing the recording, but that once more is a testament to the skills of those involved as there’s a luxuriant quality and this is an album to indulge in.
There is a mixture of love’s favour and fortune with it’s denial and disintegration, and a hardening of the heart as the counterweight. The opener, is in the latter camp and delights in a title apparently inspired by a Charlie Dore songwriting workshop, Long Drive Back Home From Love. The challenge was to come up with a six word song title and with this suggestion, Jennifer managed to turn the age old motif of coming home to the one you love, into returning from a broken love affair to find solace in yourself and courage in the cut and run closure. Hurt and hope combine, while the arrangement gives the song a sense of momentum, with rippling sinuous harp, the steady purposeful tread of the bass line and surges of cello. The emotional storm clouds fade from sight in the rear view mirror as Jennifer sings, “And why does no one ever tell us when goodbye is not enough.”
The title track also starts with harp to the fore and builds around the gentle introduction of cello and accordion. It borrows a little of the Brief Encounters story, but also casts that glance backwards, as it’s not just the ghosts of ill fated lovers that the station holds, with its memories of steam trains and the golden age of the railway succumbing to rust, also injecting a haunting nostalgia.
Whilst central themes of journeys and travelling suggest themselves readily through the opening two tracks and elsewhere as the album unfolds, there is also a sense of being between two places, the past and the present, dreams and wakefulness, reality and imagination. I’ve Forgotten Everything and Black Fly capture that feeling of wistful reverie and that the mind will wander where it will. Both play up the Americana side of Jennifer’s writing, with the harp proving a surprisingly suited for a bit of bluegrass picking, while on the latter Jennifer deploys her banjo.
The Net is a surprise. A gloriously atmospheric piece, it has something of Leonard Cohen or Scott Walker about its vocal melody and fervid poetry. It’s a truly memorable song that takes a twist in the middle as it makes use of a couple of Irish reels to create a sparkling interlude, reprised at the conclusion. The images of the sea are subsumed by a tide of emotions and we are once more in the hinterland of the mind and between parallel worlds. It’s worth the price of admission on its own.
Returning to the real world, the minor key yearning of One More Day documents the travelling musician’s lot of here today and gone tomorrow, with the sincere wish of taking the audience all of the way. Torch is another summary of love’s end, with a heart tugging Weissenborn slide from Kevin Brown and a delightfully dismissive putting down of the torch being carried for the now departed lover. Then, Angels In Disguise takes us back to the edges again, with a Sliding Doors roll call of significant others in Jennifer’s life, blending the past with the present and the revealing the truth in the line, “No one gets from A to B as the crow flies.”
Apples is a beautiful eulogy for Jennifer’s grandmother, loosely based around the traditional song Searching For Lambs and incorporating an Irish jig. Recorded in one take, it lovingly documents the transient details memory retains. Only The River is another absolutely gorgeous piece of music, the gentle eddies of tumbling harp dapple the waters surface, as Jennifer takes the plunge and sings, “It’s only the river but somewhere it reaches the sea.” The journey is ever onward into the great beyond.
That just leaves For You, another intimate song, given a little extra verve with Jennifer’s strong acoustic strumming, and guest contributions from Miranda’s bass and Kevin’s electric guitar, which has the sense of liberation that Torch displayed, sharing some of it well aimed darts as well.
This is a superb record. Great playing, great songs. Win,win! It’s also unsurprising to find that Jennifer was recently asked to take part in a programme paying tribute to Joni Mitchell, although direct, Jennifer / Joni comparisons are as foolish as the one narrowly avoided above. Yet although her voice is nothing like Mitchell’s, she has a core strength that brings Blue to mind. Still, Jennifer is very much herself and also a writer with her own unique set of gifts that melodically and lyrically, place her a cut above many of her contemporaries. Who can say what she might achieve? Only the passing of time will tell, but the journey has begun, Carnforth Station is the point of departure. All Aboard! This will be a first class ride wherever we are bound.
Review by: Simon Holland
Released September 15, 2014 on Transatlantic Roots
Pre-order via Amazon
Upcoming Live Dates
Sep 21 Looe Music Festival, Looe
Oct 14 Green Note, London
Oct 16 Chapel Arts Centre, Bath
Oct 17 Downend Folk Club, Bristol
Oct 18 The Stables, Milton Keynes
Oct 23 Edinburgh House Concert, Edinburgh
Oct 24 St Cuthbert’s House, Seahouses
Oct 27 The Norman Knight, Stratford On Avon
Oct 28 St George’s Hall, Bewdley
Oct 31 Schtumm, The Queens Head, Corsham
Nov 07 Pound Arts Centre Cafe Bar, Corsham
Nov 28 The Milton Rooms, Malton
Nov 29 Carnforth Station Heritage Centre, Carnforth
Dec 07 Horsham Folk Club, Horsham
Feb 18 Ely Folk Club, Ely
Feb 21 Pound Arts Centre, Corsham
Feb 22 Henry Tudor House, Shrewsbury