The Longest River is probably one of the longest-awaited debut albums in the recent history of Brit-folk. After a couple of toes-in-the-water appearances on themed collections such as Oak Ash & Thorn, it then seemed ages before this London-based singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist was tempted into the studio to record her abnormally tempting eponymous five-track debut EP, which finally appeared in February 2013. It then took me rather too many months to acquire a copy, but straightaway upon doing so I declared it a rare treasure, well worth the effort and the wait. Since that time, of course, Olivia’s been acclaimed as a major talent by media and critics, and naturally expectations have run high for the eventual release of a full-length album. Sensibly, she waited until she felt ready to do so, and luckily Nonesuch heard her at the right time.
The resultant disc is intensely and yet impeccably wrought, also captivatingly sparsely clothed, and finds Olivia in splendid vocal form, certainly justifying the extravagant plaudits that had greeted her EP and demonstrating a significant advance over even that lofty standard of interpretation and delivery. Moreover, I’d say it closely matches Olivia’s stated intentions: to have a transparency and intimacy and to pick up the atmosphere of the room she recorded in, almost tangibly feeling the mood of the song and the performance. The latter point can be seen as the most significant and certainly the most telling, for Olivia’s ability to convey the internal drama of a song is very impressive indeed, and (unlike that of many other classically-trained singers) not merely a response generated by near-rote application of learnt vocal technique. Olivia both owns and truly inhabits the song, whether it be an inspired choice of cover or a fabulous, edgily inventive imagery-and-allusion-rich original composition. Well, that’s the case on virtually all of the album’s tracks, the possible exception (to my mind) being the very opening cut, a take on the familiar traditional song False Bride. I hasten to add, there’s nothing amiss with Olivia’s treatment; indeed, it’s rendered with poise and understanding, and to its credit almost conversational in its demeanour, but in the very act of achieving that limpid, placid, here rather understated air of intimacy Olivia may in this instance, I suspect, have sold herself (and the song) a touch short. But then again, on closer acquaintance it nevertheless still proves one of the most persuasive renditions on record (in a very crowded market, too), its stature enhanced by the attractively pointed, often nigh iridescent, guitar-and-strings chamber scoring. I think on reflection that its placing right at the start of the disc perhaps doesn’t do it any favours, except maybe to ease the novice listener into Olivia’s musical personality gently.
Minimal sound palettes characterise the whole album, with dynamically intricate guitar work, piano playing that responsively underscores the emotional content, and occasional, exquisitely turned string embellishments – each choice of scoring apposite to the tenor of the song (the Spanish guitar traceries on Olivia’s tremendous cover of Chilean folk composer Violetta Parra’s La Jardinera are a perfect example of Olivia’s artistry in this regard). Even so, I admit I was initially just a touch underwhelmed, nay a smidgen disappointed, with The Longest River (ain’t those high expectations a curse?!), not least when I discovered that the central three songs from Olivia’s EP – Imperfections, The King’s Horses and Swimming In The Longest River – (fine though they be) were here being reprised. I should emphasise that this should not be judged a reason not to purchase (and in any case, not everyone will have managed to acquire the EP already), for the considered placing of these songs within the sequence of the album is both convincingly and contextually assured. There are four further self-penned songs here, and alongside the now-familiar three already mentioned these provide further evidence of the abundant strength, and continually lofty standard, of Olivia’s own songwriting, which in its carefully-crafted nature often approximates that of the classical (romantic) Lied. Her use of language is confident, skilfully and precisely configured and economic, while replete with cunning resonances and literary allusions. A particular hallmark of Olivia’s writing style is her telling use of stream-of-consciousness as a mode of expression rather than a mere device – most noticeable on Imperfections.
Olivia’s choice of covers is admirably eclectic, her tastes wide-ranging, and takes in the very different modulations of Alasdair Roberts’ aromatic Waxwing and Norwegian composer Sidsel Endresen’s Blessed Instant. And yet, while on the Parra song Olivia so confidently handles and overcomes the pitfalls of singing in a foreign tongue (previously demonstrated so authentically on the EP’s Villon Ballade, of course), possibly the most breathtakingly ear-catching of the covers is her almost casually virtuoso personal adaptation of Henry Purcell’s There’s Not A Swain, enticingly done with more than a hint of flamenco and without recourse to the accepted (mannered, florid) baroque mode, and thus, I feel, better suited to communicating the lightly theatrical essence of the sung text.
However adeptly and imaginatively performed (and enterprisingly chosen) be the covers, though, I still sense that time may well accord the greater accolade to Olivia’s talent as a songsmith, and it will be interesting to observe how this aspect develops on that perennially difficult album number two (when it finally arrives). For the time being though, the deliciously sombre collection that comprises The Longest River is eminently treasurable and way better than just fine to be going on with.
Review by: David Kidman
May 16 – Band on the Wall, Manchester,
May 19 – Kings Place, London,
May 21 – Junges Theatre, Göttingen (Göttingen International Handel Festival_
August 1 – Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge (Cambridge Folk Festival)