on 18 February 2010
This is a really special album, Lal had received flak from her audience when she and Mike Waterson released Bright Phoebus, their album of original compositions, and the negative response as good as silenced them for years. Once In A Blue Moon broke that silence when Lal invited us into her world, and yet whilst she shared this with us, Lal's lyrics don't necessarily communicate openly with us but often read like encrypted messages or fragments of a text cut and spliced back together out of order.
Lal sings with a dark, grainy, weary, lived-in voice, sometimes of relationships gone wrong, or observations of pieces of perfection. Sometimes she is away with her memories, sometimes she's a seer, at others a beggar. On Wilson's Arms she references places on the eastern edge of the North Yorkshire Moors, and I am drawn back, because I too lived in, and was overwhelmed by, Robin Hoods Bay years ago. Some songs have a jolly lilt to them, yet they are coloured sepia and tinted with melancholy.
I am very fond of the albums of The Watersons, Martin Carthy and Waterson:Carthy, and would probably never have discovered this album but for my love of their music, though this is something very different. Lal's son Oliver plays a crucial role in building sympathetic and imaginative spaces for the lyrics to reside in, drawing on a background in rock and jazz but referencing folk and other textures. Guests, including Jo Freya and Martin Carthy, and Coope Boyes And Simpson on the resounding Some Old Salty, add further depth, but most pieces are focused around Lal's voice and Oliver's guitars. There is magic to be found in the strange cryptic imagery and the poetry of the instrumentation.
The songs are complex, you can never hope to completely understand another person's experience even if they spell it out clear as day, but here comprehension comes in and out of focus, and particular phrases stand out with clarity for their beauty or their unusual angle of perception: "...Didn't you realise you were a bird at dawn when you woke with air in your throat..."; "The Altisadora never looked more cardinal redder and the cows in the meadow never saw so much purple heather..." Sometimes there's a playfulness like Syd Barrett, other times such resignation or fear creeping into a beautiful scene.
One of my favourite parts of the album comes with the unexpected Phoebe/Cornfield, which still, years later, sends shivers up my spine. The music on Phoebe builds from a haunted echoey space of howling winds and reverb to an almost metal peak, with pounding percussion, a backdrop of crunching guitars and a foreground of layered textures of other guitars reminiscent of something Mike Oldfield might have conjured in the 70's, which vanishes all of a sudden leaving us with sublime acoustic guitar and Cornfield's gorgeous but tainted pastoral idyll, into which perfection arrives in the form of a plaintive whistle. The creepy Dazed borrows from Arthur Rimbaud, the sparse Flight Of The Pelican condemns our complacency yet seems to yearn for that which has damned future generations to an impoverished world (at least, that is my take on it, I could be well off the mark).
I really like this album, I acknowledge at the same time that some people might find it impenetrable or too spartan, but I think it's a real beauty.