FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: THE PARLEMENT OF FOULES
With apologies to The Fast Show’s Jesse, this week I have been mostly pondering collective nouns for birds. Our winged friends do have some weird phrases applied to them; names that are commonly archaic and oddly sinister. An asylum of cuckoos. A conspiracy of ravens. A murder of crows. An invisibleness of ptarmigans. The title of today’s piece could be a cryptic judgement on the present government’s handling of just about everything but instead cites the original spelling of Geoffrey Chaucer’s late 14th century satirical poem, The Parliament of Fowls. The narrator relates a dream about a debate among a large flock of birds gathered to choose their mates. Despite a gamut of words and insults from the three main protagonists, nature intervenes and their hearts’ desire remains unrequited, while the whole thing ends in a song. Wasn’t it always so.
Chaucer’s poem heralds the coming of spring while, conversely, we are now contemplating the end of summer. A sign of this impending change in the season is when starlings start to roost and spectacular displays of their mass gatherings in the sky, known as murmurations, are seen as night begins to fall. No social distancing is required here. The background murmur created by the simultaneous beating of countless pairs of wings gives the word an added frisson.
These odd musings were prompted by UK-based folk singer, Emily Barker, who releases her sixth full-length album today, aptly titled A Dark Murmuration of Words. Its arrival seems especially timely as Barker explores global themes of climate change, racism, sexism, and poverty by engaging more of a local perspective. Combating such big issues requires change but this needs to begin at home. Yet, remembering that she relocated from Western Australia to the UK in her twenties, where exactly is home and can you legitimately return there? Her latest single from the album, "Where have the Sparrows Gone" puts climate change and the notion of home under the microscope. The accompanying video hones in one a particular verse as the fleeing mother and child divert to scatter personal ashes by the sea.
Just like the rest of the album, the single ably demonstrates that you can tackle seismic issues in song without the homilies becoming sanctimonious. It was also great to get reacquainted properly with Emily Barker’s work after something of a hiatus (on my part). I remembering seeing her live with her splendid band, The Red Clay Halo, writing an introductory piece about her for ConsequenceofSound, and then later reviewing the 2011 album, Almanac. With fresh, lilting songs like “Reckless” and “Billowing Sea”, it remains a favourite of mine to this day.
Another act confronting some of the big issues of today is Luxembourg-based Francis of Delirium, a Canadian-American alt-rock duo with the single, “Equality Song”, a follow up to its widely admired debut EP, All Change. It’s a truly powerful song that makes you take a large intake of breath and a step back from preconceptions. The duo of young singer-songwriter-guitarist Jana Bahrich and her older collaborator, Chris Hewett, goes for the jugular from the off, taking inspiration from the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. “The song was written mainly out of anger, at how absurd it is that sexual abuse is so normalised, and the systems that are in place just essentially shit on anyone that comes forward with their story”, explained Bahrich.
Her righteous railing against the systems that deny women justice, accompanied by strident guitars and propelling percussion, is also in a good cause. All proceeds from digital downloads will go to Femmes en Detresse, a Luxembourg domestic abuse charity offering protection and therapy. You can support this by downloading the song from Bandcamp, this week before it reaches other streaming platforms. “Equality Song” was funded by Luxembourg’s Ministry of Equality to celebrate 100 years of women’s voting. Patriarchs beware.
More intimate and personal revelations in song can equally resonate with listeners. Two artistes previewed in this column back in June now have full-length records available. Out today is the new album by US ex-pat, Annie Dressner, Coffee at the Corner Bar. The 12-track collection includes “Pretend”, featured previously here, shared alongside a beautifully understated selection of personal memory-inspired songs. Deeply personal, yet just as relatable, “Dogwood” recalls the singer-songwriter’s mother and is named after her mum's favourite tree while the glorious “Nyack” (featured below) is based around memories of her brother.
“Nyack is about a place I used to go to just outside New York with my family” explained Dressner. “I wrote it as a memory and for my brother. When I told him about the song, he asked me if I wrote about the [wild animal] paw prints - I did! It made me happy to learn that we had a shared experience and reflection on that time in our lives”.
The UK singer-songwriter, Ella Janes, released her crowdfunded debut album last week. The Hypnotist chronicles a series of milestones from the past decade of her life: a traumatic first relationship as a teenager (“First Love”), her father’s relocation to California and the subsequent breakdown of her family (“Family Therapy”), meeting her half-brother for the very first time (“Earth and Moon” featured below), living abroad in France for a year during university (“Travelling”) and letting go of the people (“Deux Ans”) and place she both loved and grew to call home (“Nantes”).
The title track was a very late addition to the record, written the day before she went into the studio after a phone call with her father on his birthday about facing past traumas and being able to let them go. You get the real sense that creating this album has been a way of helping her to do exactly that and so the record ends with an important message of acceptance and healing with the closing song, “It’s Alright Now”.