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Posted Thursday, February 28, 2013
Christine Wheeler and Friends
The power of Henry Lawson’s writing is that within conventional poetic structure he leads readers into depths of imagination which were no doubt challenging during his own lifetime and which remain to haunt us today. Ranking beside those who see more deeply into the human spirit, Lawson created timeless statements that brook no argument. He was one reason, perhaps the main one, why a young country could come so quickly to feel so deeply.
A man who understood bush and city life at a time when both were still half formed, Lawson perhaps envisaged the nation already emerging and set about sinking Australia’s emotional guideposts early in its development. The project by Christine Wheeler and Friends, Rain In The Mountains: Songs from Henry Lawson, was therefore always destined to be a bold initiative. Many have paid tribute to Lawson’s achievement: George Robertson, Miles Franklin, Max Cullen, The Laggan Poets, Leonard Teale. It is a measure of the finesse of Wheeler’s venture that a clear declaration is possible. An important addition to the Lawson canon has arrived.
This finely crafted album deserves international recognition, and will no doubt find it. The songs themselves will offer overseas listeners, perhaps less familiar with Lawson, a joyful introduction to his writing; seldom are texts set so delightfully to music. And for those already engaged, Rain In The Mountains once again brings Lawson and his subject matter to life with relevance and musical integrity.
Every base is covered, in fact, in this album’s instrumentation and arrangements. Often complex, they always combine comfortably and confidently. Guitars, pipes, flutes, accordion, strings, percussion and bouzouki blend into easy authenticity. Andy Busuttil’s darabuka, djembe, tapan and seedpod contribute a pleasing touch of the exotic. Gary Daley’s piano accordion achieves a similar result on Do You Think That I Do Not Know? in an unexpected but appealing echo of a Parisian street scene, implying a worldliness that takes this recording much further than the signpost to Mudgee. Mudgee itself (the name means Nest In The Hills), where Lawson spent much of his life, is charmingly acknowledged in Wheeler’s arrangement of The Mudgee Waltz for When The Children Come Home.
Celtic themes are handled with taste and accomplishment in Leigh Birkett’s several instruments and his harmony vocals. Nowhere is the whole greater than the sum of the parts than in The Route March, for which Wheeler has placed Lawson’s original text in the traditional Scottish melody Return From Fingal to paint a poignant image of horror and innocence, all the more powerful in Lawson’s characteristic understatement.
The Katoomba launch was an enjoyably relaxed affair, and telling for the number of accomplished musicians it attracted who were not directly involved. It risks running a little close to cliché to describe Wheeler’s voice as a definitive English language folk voice. Nevertheless, it is. It combines sweetness and power and provides the perfect vehicle for these expert adaptations of Lawson’s writing. Its innocence complements his irony superbly, for example, in The Route March.
Encased in the artwork of Leigh Birkett, who also co-arranged much of the album with Wheeler and Rebecca Daniel, and co-produced all of it, Rain In The Mountains offers rich imagery as well as fine music: the call of the nurturing bush heard from a railway cutting; the false promise of jingoism; a mother’s fear in times before text messaging, when a son’s departure to go droving may mean the last time she’d see him; the strange, seasonless place where women sometimes go when hope seems lost; man’s inability to be truthful to himself, and the slow destruction this wreaks on his life. Lawson’s words remain profoundly relevant and evocative today.
Above all, these recordings are the real thing, perpetuating the great days of Australian folklore, the pathos of Lloyd and the mirth of Wyndham-Read. If no other tribute had ever been made to the achievement of Australia’s bard, this one would do very well indeed. A labour of love and an undoubted contender for folk album of the year (and not just within Australia), Rain In The Mountains carries contemporary folk music to the sophistication it deserves.
Purchase: CD $25.00; download mp3 $9.99
'words and pictures by paul cosgrave'
Images: Musicians playing at the album launch, katoomba rsl, may 19 2012