Solarference is the name under which west-country-based folktronica duo Nick Janaway and Sarah Owen first combined their talents around five years ago, delivering original and unusual takes on English traditional songs, armed only with their voices and trusty laptops. Not exactly an orthodox approach, then… Their debut CD, Lips Of Clay, was an extraordinary work that divided critical opinion, while also confusing the listening public. It was mesmeric but also confrontational, haunting but distinctly challenging, and Nick and Sarah’s clearly expressed respect for, and equally clear involvement with, folk song tradition, appeared to many listeners to sit uneasily with, if not completely at odds with, an ostensibly almost detached presentation of their material; it was not always easy for those listeners to follow them on their journey of discovery. I observed at the time that the intelligence of the duo’s vision for the songs overrides one’s potential objections to their method of delivery and that consideration applies just as much to album number two, Locks And Bolts.
It’s interesting too that Nick and Sarah have taken the decision to record the album live (at the Cube Cinema in Bristol in January this year); while the recording does give a certain frisson of spontaneity and of-the-moment involvement, I do feel the inclusion of enthusiastic applause rather breaks the spell of their performance on occasion. But that’s my only carp about the release; musically it’s bolder, and if anything even more daringly experimental in terms of texture than its predecessor, also more adventurous in terms of presentation. The live electronics, together with occasional piano or guitar, surround and supplement the voices by generating an intricate tapestry of jittery, edgy atmospherics, which comprises both half-recognisable tonality and some decidedly strange and less-than-half-recognisable sounds that turn out to be (among other things) jar lids, bicycle bells, combs, and ripping paper and sellotape. These other-worldly sounds emanate from uncomfortably close to home, yet they could just as easily either have originated on another planet or from within a terrestrial ant-hill. The effect is by turns ethereal, eerie and acerbic, but it can even be strangely comforting, as on the supremely gothic/noir Lucy Wan, which features Tibetan singing bowl and a musical saw in counterpoint to Sarah’s brilliant vocal rendition.
Indeed, both Sarah and Nick are on splendid form vocally, as they demonstrate on the exceedingly tricky acapella mélange-cum-juxtaposition of Dives And Lazarus and Song Of The Times – a particularly disconcerting conception. This is one of three intriguing instances where two different songs are combined within one sequence – the others being I’ll Make My Love A Garland energetically conjoined to Sylvie, and Come To My Window melded with The Complaining Maid, the latter being one of the most compelling confections on the entire set. Jute Mill Song (the only strictly non-traditional number here) is selectively cacophonous, with interjection of sampled “factory noise” contrasting with the gentle guitar figures and close harmony vocals, imparting a sense of jarring urgency to the task in hand. Similarly, an edgy beat-box pattern gives a fractured aura to the opening song I Wish That The Wars Were All Over, and the fragmentary, minimalist backing to Farewell He masterfully conveys the song’s subliminal recrimination-strategy. Final number She Rode On The Railroads creatively uses clashes of harmony between strange piano chords and the resounding of suspended metal objects to pave the way for the defiant, empowering conclusion of the song (Locks And Bolts).
On this latest album, Solarference have intuitively constructed a thorny and challenging set of pieces that amply repays any measure of the effort expended in getting to know their music. The ghosts of the past continue to inform the present, which in turn haunts the future.