Gem Andrews – North
Market Square – 16 February 2018
As with her previous release, 2016’s Vancouver, Gem Andrews includes a Kate & Anna McGarrigle song on her latest album ‘North’. Last time it was Anna’s Heart Like A Wheel, here it’s Kate’s Come A Long Way, a suitably jaunty two-minute take featuring Bernard Wright on fiddle and some cardboard box whacking from Dora and Macie Keddie-McLaren. There are also two other non-originals, but these aren’t covers as such. Straight Lines and Two Lighthouses are actually acoustic, waltz-styled settings of poems by the late Newcastle-based poet Julia Darling, the former, arranged by Zoe Lambert and Dave Scott, as a country-tinged fingerpicked number, the latter, arranged by Tim Dalling and featuring Wright on mandolin with accordion by Nicky Rushton, taking a folksier approach.
The inclusion of Darling’s works is part and parcel of the album’s pervasive North East of England influence, whether as theme or backdrop, as Andrews addresses themes of mental illness, poverty, community and the destitution wreaked by blinkered, class-led politics. Lungs is a good example of the latter, a frisky brushed drums and violin led song about the collapse of mining communities that were effectively destroyed by the Thatcher government during the 1984-85 strike. Naturally, there’s a dash of northern brass courtesy of Ed Blazey’s trumpet.
The album opens with the waltzing tempo of Letter, a simple, lilting, fingerpicked number coloured by Wright’s violin about creative and spiritual rebirth and an apology for mistakes made and hurt caused. From here, it moves to the more country-shaded Sing Your Song, a presumably reflective autobiographical number about growing up in a Liverpool council house and of her abusive stepfather’s ‘Napoleonic temperament’ and learning “how to read his tone and his body, his violence and quietness and eggshells underneath”, before leaving as a teenager to move to Newcastle, its emotions underscored by Chris Hillman’s pedal steel and Wright’s yearning fiddle.
There’s a return to a more earthy, Celtic-tinted folksiness on the tumbling chords of the nautical-imagery, chorus-friendly Bare which, as the title suggests, is about opening yourself up rather than trying to outsmart those with whom you are in a relationship. With Rushton weighing in on piano and Sarah Van Jellie on bowed double bass, there’s a starker folk sensibility to the brooding rumble of Feathers & Skin that, echoes its wintery-setting and hibernation imagery.
A slow country waltz shuffle featuring Hillman’s keening pedal steel, Susanne Lambert’s brushed drums and Wright’s mandolin, the reflective lost relationship Two By Two is probably the most immediate track, while the twangsome Medicate, a song addressing poor relationships choices, thoughts of home and life on antidepressants, is, paradoxically, easily the most musically buoyant, Hillman in sprightly picking mood before slowing to a big finale.
The final self-penned track strips it all back to a simple acoustic guitar for Carole, a wistful lyric about carrying the memory of an elderly prodigal friend who has passed on, (“you never really let go did you, we’re wearing your smile, we’ll carry you around”) pedal steel and violin joining in for the final seconds. Set your musical compass, this is a magnetic North, indeed.