No envelopes pushed, no barriers broken, rather Chris While and Julie Matthews‘ tenth album together, Shoulder to Shoulder, just does what they’ve been doing for the past 22 years. Namely, producing songs that range from the personal to the political, that touch the heart and the mind equally, the lyrics couched in easy on the ear melodies, impeccably played and sung, either individually or as a duo, with gorgeous harmonies.
Having been doing this for over two decades, earning numerous awards and nominations in the process, it seems appropriate that the album begins with the country-toned duo-penned track titled The Skin I’m In. The song which features Matthews on lead, Danny Hart on fiddle and Kellie While on backing vocals, is all about being comfortable with yourself, jumping into the river of life, sink or swim, and seeing yourself as others see you.
The song is, of course, also about being content with what you have rather than envying others and also about making a commitment, a theme echoed in the album title and which finds expression on several other numbers, albeit in different ways. For example, the second track, the Laurel Canyon-era Joni-like, Slim To Nil, a co-write between Chris and Charlie Dore, comes from a very personal angle, documenting While’s ten-year-long distance relationship and the thread “that keeps our hearts entwined.”
From a political – but equally very human – perspective, Matthews contributes two powerful numbers about solidarity. Again featuring Hart on fiddle, alongside the album’s core line-up of Neil Fairclough on bass, Neil Marshall on drums and Johnny Heyes on electric guitar, the slow marching Pride with its anthemic chorus, written in response to the Irish referendum on gay marriage and the opposition from the Catholic Church, is a call for sexual tolerance and flying the rainbow flag. Extending the theme beyond sexuality, and with an equally anthemic chorus, Are We Human? which features Ken Nicol on guitars, Eizabeth Frencham on double bass and Christine Collister on backing vocals, has Matthews sounding at times a little like Janis Ian on another contribution to the on-going refugee crisis and the tendency of Little Englanders to close their eyes and turn their backs.
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The album’s other political commentary comes from While and stems from their work on last year’s Ballads of Child Migration album which focused on the forced child migrations from Britain which took place between 1869 and 1970 (read the FRUK review here). On that they contributed Small Cases Full of Big Dreams and the ironically lullaby-like, Celtic-folk coloured Pinjarra Dreams, which features here, sung in the voice of one such orphaned child, now unpaid labour, looking back on the day they sailed to a supposed better life and wishing they could row back to England while Hart’s fiddle provides an aching accompaniment.
The remaining numbers are more personal and relationship-centred, jubilant on the one hand with the likes of love in full flood on Here It Comes Again with its Police-like chugging rhythm and the playful jaunty jazzy-blues White/Dore composition Nothing Yanks My Chain (Like You Do). On the other, featuring While on lead and writer Matthews on piano, Ordinary Day is, with a nod to Auden’s Stop All The Clocks, a song about death and loss, the image of an empty chair and how there should be some momentous event in nature to mark their passing otherwise how will the world “know you were here and now you’re gone.”
Mortality is also behind the album’s other duo composition, the earthy gospel rhythm sway Tree Of Life, which, backed by just double bass, drums and percussion, the pair harmonising on the chorus, the lyrics about the passage from birth and death also touching on the themes of love and taking chances visited elsewhere.
The album closes with two very contrasting songs. The third of the White/Dore numbers, where Pinjarra Dreams concerned a child separated from their mother, Leap Of Faith, accompanied by acoustic guitar and piano, tells of a mother and daughter, divided by an ocean, being reunited at Christmas after 25 years on opposite sides of the world. And, finally, Matthews on mandolin and lead, the dreamily slow swaying, gradually swelling search for peace and safe harbour, My Salty Dog And Me, is her long-term relationship love letter, the object of affection being her 13-year-old Golden Retriever, Dylan. The album is a potent reminder that they remain one of the finest duos on the acoustic scene, there is strength in this union.
Shoulder to Shoulder is Out Now. Order it direct here.
While and Matthews are on tour together now, visit their website for full details here: www.whileandmatthews.co.uk