A Suffolk-based teacher, folksy singer-songwriter James Varda released his debut album, Hunger, in 1989. He didn’t release a second until 2004. A further nine years passed before his third, but he’s been a little less tardy producing a follow-up this time round with Chance and Time.
Playing acoustic guitar arpeggios that sound like rippling water, pastoral of mien and very English, it’s not hard to spot the influences, Nick Drake, perhaps inevitably, being prime among them, though Jansch and Graham are certainly there too in the fingerwork while it may not be too fanciful to discern a hint of Donovan.
Varda’s tremulously high, whispery voice may be something of an acquired taste, especially to listen to the whole album in one sitting, but it undoubtedly underscores the intimacy of the songs, whether they be celebrating the pastoral landscape with rich natural imagery as in May This Moment Ever Glow and Pass It On, the endurance (Our Love Will Never End) or loss of love (the jazzy We Won’t Dream) or, as with the title-yielding, devastating The Doctor Spoke (“scan by scan the picture grew ..and as best I could, I asked is there something we can do?”), a song born of his diagnosis with incurable cancer, the spectre of loss and death.
With mostly mid-tempo fingerpicked melodies capturing the theme of transience that runs through the album, Varda’s joined by various musicians who add extra texture to the material, notably Fliss Jones on harp and accordion, backing vocalist Johanna Herron and cellist Mick Hutton. One Thing After Another also provides a link to Varda’s musical past with the appearance of Nick Harper on guitar recalling how, back in the late 80s, Varda toured with Roy Harper.
25 years on, Varda remains as much an enigma as he did then, still preferring the music to provide his biography. He may release another album in a couple of years or he may simply disappear back into the mists once again, whatever the future holds, this is a memory to cherish.
Review by: Mike Davies
Chance and Time is out now via Small Things.
Order via Amazon