Fools and Orphans~Ninthspace album review

Jo Gabriel: Fools and Orphans

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There are moments in Bulldozer, the opening song from Jo Gabriel’s new album, when Stephanie Rearick’s trumpet heralds the words ‘why should I love you’. These brief but beautiful events mark the most striking difference between this album and its more elaborate (if not immediate) predecessor IslandFools and Orphansdraws away from traditional arrangements to let the songs breathe, and in doing so allows Jo to continue distinguishing herself from the current ’..and piano’ crowd (I like Emm Gryner’s term ‘contemporary nonsensery.’) Few artists have the ability or opportunity to be this daring (mostly down to record label pressures, no doubt) and this successful. Fools and Orphans shines from its own darkness.Kristin Hersh’s The Grotto was an album born out of loss and the resulting reflection on life and relationships. Fools and Orphans is different – its main theme is also loss, but barely offers sanctuary. The Grotto tears me apart and then rebuilds me; Fools and Orphans does the former then leaves a lingering sadness, although it’s more compelling as a result. The open arrangements, often rhythmically fluid and spontaneous are charmingly beautiful and ideal for such stories. It’s up to us to fill in the blanks, to empathise and to draw comparisons with our own lives.

Those who love Island might be surprised by the results – these songs make more sense if you were left breathless by The Amber Sessions. Jo is joined by a brilliant set of musicians who accompany her piano, synthesizer and concertina. There’s no major explosion of fireworks and no ego: Jo’s piano is here to set scenes, mark out rhythms and to dynamically sweep songs through their various emotional phases – you’ll probably end up loving every note she plays. Much of the greatness of the album is in Jo’s interplay with Matt Turner’s cello and Mark Urness’ upright bass, both of which better Andrew Bird’s string performances on The Grotto. Linda Mackley continues her percussion duties, but is barely noticeable such is the subtly of her performance – which is exactly what’s required – and Wendy Schneider occasionally adds guitar and something called ‘the little machine that could drone on.’

Melodies and rhythms often appear where they are least expected, developing their own counterpoints and shifting tempos but the experience and process of knowing each song is reward in itself. A line from Of Love and Ether, “to touch between sensations” perfectly summarises how this works. It’s just as important to delve between and beneath each note. That’s why the live birdsong on that song, and the happenstance rebar chimes on God Grant She Lye Still work their way so coherently into the mix. But it’s no coincidence – by the time these songs begin to appear, halfway out, we’re already trained how to listen to this album. The more you listen, the more you’ll learn the flow of each track.

Jo enthralls me with her unusual delivery of language, compressing or mutating phrases to track against the music, creating its own instrument: on The Habits of Shadows a moaning vocal interlude bridges the verses, later joined by Hannah Fury’s whispers for some shivery layering.Of Love and Ether, a song which epitomises the ephemeral themes of the album, echos this vocal styling. But it’s the climax of God Grant She Lye Still, when the title repeats and shatters, where the vocals have the most dramatic impact.

As is the case with albums that are as intense as this one, it’s difficult to pick out individual tracks for particular noteworthy attention. I should mention that How The Devil Falls In Lovebrings to mind the loneliness of The Cardigan’s 03.45: No Sleep, but adds guilt and frustration, and the final song Poison in the Well is an understated anthem, using strong piano chords where you might expect an avalanche of strings.

Fools and Orphans marks a new phase in Jo Gabriel’s musical career and although I’ve only discovered her music recently I feel privileged to witness her journey. For all its sorrow Fools and Orphans is a glorious creation.

Fools and Orphans has an artist’s limited release from 7 May 2008 through Ephemera and will also be released in Winter 2008 through Kalinkaland.

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