It’s a dark place that Emily Portman writes about or imagines. There is little light, in a world full of natural, wild and rustic imagery, a place where lore and the supernatural twist what we think we already know and understand. At times it’s down-right disturbing, disturbing but fascinating as Portman draws on all the undercurrents of traditional music, to remind us that the fields and woodlands of Britain aren’t always rural paradise. Something else lurks amongst the hedgerows and forests.
Of course Portman isn’t the first to hint at the arcane, Bob Pegg and Mr. Fox did it, Mandy Morton of Spriguns and there was gothic blood and thunder associated with everything Comus touched, look, traditional ballads are stacked with it. So she stands in a direct line of 18 certificate writers who’ve harnessed the more magical and mystical, on Coracle – her first entirely self written offering – she gets right to business. Darkening Bell has the lyric, “mole blind you crawl, heart ticking with eye sockets aching, dreamer your darkening will come, let it not be too soon.”
Borrowed and Blue seems to be about childbirth in a lonely spot, the mother deserted by close family and bereft, Coracle itself has the boat made from skin and hair, Eye of Tree has oaks with human qualities (er..maybe,) though on A Grief, there really is someone inside the bark! There’s lots about giving birth, birds and being on your own, though none of this is contemporary or is it? For this listener the historical, enchanting, storytelling aspects are what largely come over, all lent a gentle almost, innocent air by the backing, chiefly harps and fiddles, keyboards though I’m pleased to hear soft core techtronics and electric guitar in the mix. Lots of layering applied after initial recording obviously, Emily’s vocal remains as mesmerising and enticing as ever, parts of the album recorded in a church lend a haunting quality and a superb production job from Andy Bell adds to the whole.
If as seems highly likely Coracle is going to move Emily Portman forward both in terms of status and musically, it’s one of the best albums of 2015 for pointing to examples of modern roots done with vision and daring. In a year stacked with incredible, essential sounding albums here’s another to add to the list and plunge the bank balance into the red.