Achingly beautiful music in troubled times
In those distant days before the world was gripped by the hands of a virus that forced us all into lockdown, I was on my way back home on a train from London. I was doing some research on my laptop into the Prog Rock band Porcupine Tree (as you do). The woman sitting next to me asked me if I liked that genre of music. Guilty as charged. She introduced herself as Ms Amy Birks (Winner of “Best Female Vocalist” in the 2018 PROG Magazine poll). She told me that she was about to release her debut solo album, having split with her former band Beatrix Players. I promised to review the album when it was released. So, dear reader, here is my review.
The first thing that strikes you is Amy’s voice, which is honey-rich, sometimes heavy with emotional vibrato, urgently rhythmic in its phrasing and in its need to communicate these quietly vital songs.
Ms Birks has been compared to Kate Bush, and it’s a valid comparison, but the singer that came to mind in terms of emotional truth is a very different performer, Peter Hammill. Listen to his 1977 album Over, written at the end of long relationship. Some of the songs on All That I Am & All That I Was are about a painful divorce, and are as intensely raw and personal as those on the earlier album. And the comparison continues with the close-micing of the vocals on each album; the singer is in the room with you. Compare these lines from Peter Hammill
For pain and love go hand in hand... And hand in hand go you and my friend from Time Heals
With these from Amy Birks
Tell me who is, who is she You owe me that at least from With All that I am
Other, slow, reflective, tracks on the new album such as Unlike The Heart, More and Not Every Night also deal with Amy’s painful past relationships.
But the most powerful song on the album Say Something describes her time as a teenage model and an older man who took advantage of her. Accompanied by gentle, delicate falling mournful harmonies she describes her regret that she didn’t say anything at the time about behaviour that was just as wrong then as it is now
And it was okay was it For me to take off my clothes So much beauty And only seventeen years old
She now says “It’s not just about my experience, but also other people’s. These songs help to take me through very difficult parts of my life. I’ve realised I’m much stronger than I thought I was, now I’ve had time to explore those feelings.
What’s very effective is that this very autobiographical song segues into another song in the same key, and also in the unusual rhythm (for a pop song) of 3/4 or waltz time. The track is about another woman who is hated and mistreated by a man, Catherine of Aragon
He woke up today With a hate for Catherine
Like several of the other songs, Catherine displays a lovely use of instrumental harmonies juxtaposed with the vocal line. Here, the melody seems to be in a major key at one point where the harmony is in the minor. It feels like a false relation, appropriately enough a musical technique that was popular during the reign of Henry VIII.
Amy’s evident love for history continues with another song with a Baroque dance feel to it, All the Fault of Lady Anne, and about another of Henry’s wives Anne Boleyn. Gentler than its predecessor, the song still reminds us of her fate when she was sent to the Tower.
Amy Birks’ love of history extends to historic literature. The track I Wish features Steve Hackett on acoustic guitar and lyrics based on the words of Christina Rossetti in her poem I wish I were a little bird – poet, activist and the subject of some of the most famous paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
As Amy says, The Rossetti poem works perfectly as this is a dark lyric about the fragility of the mind and how the past can so very easily come back to tease and torment.
I wish I were a little bird That out of sight doth soar, I wish I were a song once heard But often pondered o'er, Or shadow of a lily stirred By wind upon the floor, Or echo of a loving word Worth all that went before, Or memory of a hope deferred That springs again no more. I wish I were a little bird, by Christina Rossetti
The guitar and percussion add a lively flamenco feel to the track, and a subtle highlight of the album is the quote from Rossetti which includes a gorgeous chord change around 2 minutes 15 seconds into the song (under the words hope deferred) which melts in the mind.
The literary theme is also found in Jamaica Inn which refers to the book by Daphne du Maurier. Although it was published in the 1930s it was set in 200 years ago in Cornwall, which allows Amy to have fun on Cornish beaches and in a horde-driven carriage in the video:
The song, which opens the album, begins with a gentle, confessional melody, leading to an ear-worm of a chorus which haunts the mind for days.
The album is largely self-produced, no doubt drawing on skills Amy acquired from her degree in Music Technology at Staffordshire University. The production is beautifully simple, the song writing and arrangements accomplished and mature.
It’s always a good sign when an album leaves you wanting more, as this one did when it finished. It was also a consoling, richly-felt companion on a solitary coronavirus walk through a nearby sunlit industrial estate.