Megan Henwood – River
Dharma Records – 27 October 2017
Megan Henwood’s emerging maturity as a songwriter and performer resonates throughout the twelve songs on River on which a fascinating soundscape accentuates her consistently tight and skilful writing and singing.
There is a point about three minutes into ‘Fresh Water‘, the second track on Megan Henwood‘s third album ‘River‘, where Jonny Enser’s trumpet glides into the foreground and changes the whole dynamic of the song. The instrument is there throughout, like a gentle spectre in the shadows, but the solo is a master-stroke that transforms the genre of the piece from chorus-led folk to grown-up basement jazz almost instantly. Megan says people were dubious of the brass intrusion on such a strong lyrical and catchy song, but her decision to include it is a strong one and is one of many clear signs of her emerging maturity as a writer and performer that resonates throughout these twelve songs.
The Laura Marling comparisons continue to be inevitable for this singer, mainly because her voice can sound incredibly similar in places, mostly in the lower range, but also because there is an intelligence to her lyrics and timings that Marling has always possessed. The best example of this is on one stand out track, ‘The Dolly‘, written by Henwood when she was living particularly itinerantly. The wonderfully grabbed back line ‘I’m sleeping easily, very occasionally’ is cleverly timed and the quite tricky vocal, without a hooked chorus to groove into, is just right. Also, the arrangement is minimal and it lets Megan’s voice do most of the work, which she steps up to confidently and, not for the first time here, comes across as a singer making good ground in showcasing her talent and mercurial ability.
What also becomes clear as the album progresses is the subtle power of the song-writing and the apparent understanding between Megan and her (third time) producer Tom Excell. The pair obviously work very intuitively together and on River Excell (let’s not be too obvious and stick a pun in here) really shows his ability to use a light touch. ‘Apples‘ works perfectly alongside ‘The Dolly‘ as a seemingly slight number that only reveals its power to grip once it has gone. A pretty finger-picked pattern introduces a vocal reminiscent of The Beatles’ ‘Let it Be’ in its gentleness, but with darkly melancholy lyrics defying the arrangement:
‘She can hear the apples falling all around the garden / She will leave them there to rot into the earth’.
The beautifully weary cello and double bass sitting back and supporting the story of the patient protagonist fit very well, but it’s the heartbreakingly matter of fact vocal delivery with that bright guitar intro leading into the low notes from the strings that provide the challenge and hoists this song into impressively intelligent territory.
Towards the end of the album, things progress into the lower lights of the evening and have more of the lovely jazz influences coming in. The percussion that introduces ‘Oh Brother‘ is particularly silky and compliments the guitar and bass refrains that carry Megan’s clear vocal very nicely. The song is built around one of many water metaphors that run through the set, but it’s what isn’t said that intrigues the listener in this song:
‘I had all the attention until you arrived […] The river is long, the river is twisted […] Oh brother of mine, we’re on the same river side’.
The apparent familial references are plentiful, most obviously to the eponymous sibling, which is interesting enough knowing the connection between Megan and brother Joe, but also their father, a boat builder, who is probably the one mentioned. All of the redemptive writing is as intriguing as a Bronte novel, but the music is also lovely, delicate and sympathetic to the song, and it slides so nicely into the next track ‘Used to be so Kind‘, that they could have been a medley piece. Here our narrator will always be the firstborn and will be ‘always calm by the riverside, until the day I die’. It is adult writing, abstract and then spiky in parts, but always tempting the listener and creating more questions than answers:
‘I used to have a straight spine / I used to wear a natural smile / I used to be so kind’.
It’s this reflectiveness in the lyrics that absorbs the listener and brings to mind literary figures like the protagonist sat on the bank in Siddartha, contemplating the unity of life and studying the river for wisdom and enlightenment.
If it all sounds very deep and meaningful, then prepare for the dramatic darkness of ‘L’Appel du Vide‘, meaning ‘the call of the void’, or the overwhelming urge to jump from high places, that concludes the album. Here we have a haunted narrator, waiting for the end:
‘Siren won’t leave, she just sits here and sings to me / When will the finish begin?’
The writing could remind one of an Emily Portman song, but the arrangement feels more operatic. The electric guitar line leading the dance creates echoing space, while the scratchy violin creepily fills it. With an eerie piano reminiscent of PJ Harvey’s White Chalk album sitting alongside heavy cello lines, the song is anything but subtle, but the melodrama creates dark entertainment that offsets the rest of the songs well. Not for the first time on River, it showcases confident writing from Henwood, who wrote all of the songs here, but also, with broader brush-strokes on the final song, producer Excell and the pair’s band, who deliver a fascinating soundscape throughout, surrounding without smothering word-smith Megan’s consistently tight and skilful writing and singing.
River will be released on October 27th on Dharma Records (See Tour Dates below)
Megan has just revealed her new video for Seventh, her latest single from River:
Megan Henwood Tour Dates
OCT 21 – North Dorset Folk Festival – Solo
OCT 27 – The Stables, Milton Keynes – Solo
OCT 31 – Holywell Music Room, Oxford – Solo
NOV 03 – No. 8, Launceston – Solo
NOV 08 – South Hill Park, Bracknell – Solo
NOV 27 – St Pancras Old Church, London – Full Band
For more details visit: http://www.meganhenwood.com