The winner of the BBC Young Folk Award in 2009 and the BBC Horizon Award in 2012, Megan Henwood released her debut album, Making Waves, back in 2011. Since then she’s been pretty much under the radar, working on assembling this sophomore release.
Whereas the debut teamed her with such names as Peter Knight and Sam and Joe Brown, although this does feature several appearances by Jackie Oates on viola, Head Heart Hand is a less folk celebrity studded affair with musicians including brother Joe, Pete Thomas (the bassist she shares with Oates) and Tom Excell (Afrobeat, Dub, Hip Hop group Nubiyan Twist), contributing guitar and mandolin and co-producing.
Henwood has declared Elliott Smith, Bill Withers and Anaïs Mitchell as her key influences and reviews have likened her to Laura Marling, but, to these ears, a more immediate comparison, on both the debut and this, would be Thea Gilmore. Indeed, the itchy rhythm opening track, Love/Loathe (another of her songs reflecting fear of failure) is strikingly reminiscent of This Girl Is Taking Bets. On the other hand, stretching the references into different genres, No Good No Fun is a jazzy blues about rejection that surely owes a debt to the riff from Dave Brubeck’s Take Five.
The album title is borrowed from a book by her boat-builder father and refers to maintaining a balance between intellect, emotion and effort. The phrase itself forms the chorus to the album closer Painkiller, cello, upright bass, viola and soft, subtle drums and the Catweazel Choir at the Ashmolean Museum underpinning an almost early Joni-like number that obliquely addresses the death of her uncle, Cornish pain relief specialist Louis Gifford, and her father’s adoption.
Lyrically, it has both overt and implied references to alienation and death. Although the latter isn’t necessarily overcast with gloom, her uncle’s passing being a relief from suffering while, on Grateful Ghost, which features her brother on sax, blossoms from airy gentle ballad into a Gracelands styled rhythm. She sings how, having found her feet, if she should go tomorrow her epitaph would read “she died with a smile on her face.”
That said, such jollity isn’t characteristic. Chemicals, a breathily sung number backed by acoustic guitar, is a sort of break up apology as she sings how “I was gonna be your doctor, but I could not find your heartbeat” and the chemicals in her body told her to walk away. The stark, brooding These Walls with its Hammond, heavy blues slide guitar and the line “help me escape my own mind” seems to concern mental turmoil, and the mazurka-like Puppet And The Songbird, with Matthew Holborn’s gypsy violin, suggests an ambivalence about funnelling the creative muse which arrives “unrelenting, unpleasant, unshaved.”
And, if the ambling Garden is (or at least appears to be) a sunny celebration of rebirth and creativity, it’s offset by the self-doubt that percolates the piano waltzing, cello whirling Fall And Fade (“they say I sound like an echo. And they count down the days, ‘till I fall and I fade”) and the pessimism of Lead Balloon (“I’m not worth salty years. Soldier on, we’ll be history in a year…don’t try to find me, leave me lost and lonely”).
Quite how personal some of these songs are is open to speculation, but the album’s stop you in your tracks number is clearly drawn from headlines rather than experience as, featuring just guitar and cello, Our Little Secret has an intimately breathy Henwood unfolding an account of a “deceivingly innocent” looking schoolgirl seducing (“this is my first time”) and then blackmailing her teacher (?) that, unless he abides by her demands, she’ll “tell them all you made me.” Murder ballads have nothing on this.
Henwood’s debut announced her as a promising new voice on the contemporary English folk scene; this confirms her as one of its finest exponents.
Review by: Mike Davies
Released 10 July 2015 via Dharma Records
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