Josephine Foster occupies a territory similar to that inhabited by Will Oldham. The voice is instantly recognisable, the musical framework bare and mostly free of virtuosic flourishes, the lyrical concerns at once timeless and old-timey. And like Oldham, Foster can be something of an acquired taste. It’s that voice. Operatically trained and yet somehow retaining the rural Colorado yowl, it produces a kind of rustic baroque effect, highly original and at times greatly moving.
On No More Lamps In the Morning, Foster’s voice is given even more room than usual. The songs are mostly reworkings of older material. Many of these were already musically minimal; here they stripped almost bare. Where Foster once straddled the boundaries of freak-folk, baroque, country and a very arcadian take on anti-folk, now the influence of modernism can be discerned: notes are stretched into quiet drones or cut short in abstract collages.
Opening track Blue Roses – originally from 2013’s I’m a Dreamer (review here) – defocusses itself with a quiet wash of guitar, removing the pointedly American setting of the original and replacing it with something altogether more otherworldly. The lyrics are Rudyard Kipling’s, but could have been written any time in the last couple of hundred years or so.
Foster’s husband Victor Herrero backs her on Portuguese guitar throughout the record, and his influence on Foster’s sound – here and throughout the last half a decade – is palpable. The aura of looseness and of self-deconstruction that flows through this record can, in part, be attributed to Herrero’s unfettered, modernistic take on an old form. On A Thimbleful of Milk Foster eschews simple finger-picking and stretches the song out over a languid, exploratory guitar line. These songs by no means lack structure, but the kind of structure is long-form, compositional (or improvisational), its nature harder to pin down. It takes the listener out of the comfort zone of folk or country music and into more nebulous and more challenging terrain.
There can be something Gothic in Foster’s delivery. Her interpretation of James Joyce’s My Dove, My Beautiful One teases out the poem’s dark underbelly, the ambiguities that are camouflaged in its gentleness. ‘Arise, arise!/The night-dew lies/Upon my lips and eyes‘ suggests a return from death as much as a lovers’ tryst. In fact, the slowing-down and stretching-out process Foster adopts gives the whole record the merest hint of the unheimlich, of songs that are somehow familiar, embedded in a kind of native musical consciousness but tweaked slightly so as to undermine themselves. The half-tangible ghost of Gyða Valtýsdóttir’s cello transforms fans’ favourite The Garden of Earthly Delights into a spooked lullaby, while the title track – a throwback to Foster’s days as one half of Born Heller – begins with a guitar passage that is almost North African in style before the words are delivered in a manner that recalls free-association or partial improvisation.
On Second Sight the cello is again used to create a creepy dissonance and the song’s snail’s-pace setting turns it into a parched prayer. Perhaps the album’s most impressive moment, though, is the final track, Magenta. In its original incarnation on I’m a Dreamer it drifted quietly on bowed bass and unadorned piano. Here it is even more tender, but oddly more experimental. Herrero’s guitar creates a swoon that becomes practically a continuous drone – the influence of modernism again. The result is beautiful and eerie. The song seems to toy with time, and with the expectations that come with time limits, so that the listener can never quite work out if it seems much longer or much shorter than it actually is.
One of Josephine Foster’s great strengths as a musician is her ability to work any song so that it appears a natural fit for her singular and idiosyncratic voice. In effect, the voice becomes the main instrument and if there is anything virtuosic in her performances it is her ability to call on operatic phrasing. But this is always done in a knowing, self-aware way. That it never becomes self-parodic (and there are of course ample opportunities for self-parody in a record like this, where old ground is retrodden) is testament to Foster’s interpretive skill and artistic vision. Her songs are often like characters in a carnival parade – some are mildly grotesque, some flamboyant and others more muted. Those on No More Lamps In the Morning are, for all their apparent restraint, some of the most compelling and haunting of her career.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Josephine Foster is on tour in the UK & Europe including a Two Day Residency At Cafe Oto this Week.
UK & European Dates
25th February: London, Cafe Oto (solo)
26th February: London, Cafe Oto w/ Victor Herrero
20 Mar: Festival Hibernarock, Eglise Saint-Martin, Laroquebrou, France
24 Mar: Auditorium du Musée des Abattoirs, Toulouse, France
28 Apr: STUK, Leuven, Belgium
29 Apr: Netwerk, Aalst, Belgium
3rd May: Glasgow, Glad Café
4th May: Shipley, Merchant’s Quay
5th May: Norwich, Arts Centre
6th May: Sheffield, The Lamplight Club
7th May: Milton Keynes, MK Gallery