Rachel Taylor-Beales is one of the true originals in the singer-songwriter world, a doggedly and proudly independent spirit whose extraordinary life-experiences thus far have undoubtedly shaped and defined her talents. Her early years involved a bewildering succession of relocations between Australia and the UK: a situation which any child would find unsettling. By the age of 12, she’d lived in 13 different homes, and the difficulty of coming to terms with this somewhat nomadic existence must have made quite a mark on her psyche, giving her a high degree of resilience and no doubt subconsciously encouraging her to forge a distinctive creative personality. This would also likely have stemmed from the presence of several artists in her family, for, always finding a spare guitar to hand in the household, Rachel started writing songs very early on. The Nottingham folk scene of her late teens was both her proving ground and the venue for a fortuitous meeting with her future husband Bill, a visual artist with whom she was to relocate back to Australia, where, forming a dedicated arts company, they spent four years touring and performing in all manner of venues and situations. Since 2000, however, Rachel and Bill have been based in Cardiff, setting up their own record label, with Rachel rapidly establishing herself as a solo performer with a strongly individual character, along the way greatly impressing master s/s Martyn Joseph and gaining an increasing number of critical plaudits through the production of a series of richly inventive studio albums firmly grounded in her own songwriting. These albums – 2004’s Brilliant Blue, 2008’s Red Tree and 2011’s Dust And Gold – together formed a fantastic “colour trilogy”, over the course of which Rachel’s narratives uncompromisingly recounted her own experiences and ongoing emotional journeys, linking these literately within the context of the universal life struggle and common spiritual quest.
Stone’s Throw, Lament of the Selkie engages directly with these themes too, taking the form of a kind of song-cycle. Some three years in the making, its creation both accompanied and was informed by a series of life-struggles that Rachel had personally undergone, including the effects of injuries sustained from a serious fall from stage, her fears of its impact on her then unborn child and the long and painful period of recovery. And it has turned out a tremendous achievement. Rachel herself describes Stone’s Throw as a dark folklore concept tale based around Selkie (Seal-Folk) mythology from the Orkney Isles, and here – following the scene-setting device of the cycle’s initial song (Seaside), with its wonderful, playfully wry observational character-study of the Selkie and what she has had to become in trying to fit into land-based society – the tragic narrative is related almost exclusively from the first-person viewpoint, addressing the listener directly from the mind of the Selkie herself and its inconsolable reflection, wherein every recalled and experienced emotion draws her back to her unavoidable loss. For her dream of living a life on land with her land-bound partner had become unsustainable, due, she realised, to their incompatible lifestyles, leaving her with no option but to return to the sea whence she came and in doing so leave that partner similarly grief-stricken. Rachel’s unique vocal personality beguiles and mesmerises; its cadences connive and convince, drawing us deep into the Selkie’s character through a timbre that’s breathy but tough and yet betokening a seductive, careful enunciation that lingers and caresses for its natural expressive effect and entices us into full sympathy with her plight while invoking the shifting-quicksand nature of her mental state.
Rachel begins the cycle in a state of relative calm and solace, with the Selkie’s body drifting and glistening in the sun, lazing almost carefree in the pursuit of summer Somersaults (nice wordplay here) when it’s Summer Again and the landscape is beguiling and dreamy. At this point, we sense, the Selkie can almost cope with her landlocked situation – until, that is, the call of the sea is too strong and she cannot but surrender plaintively to its siren-song, its sinuous beckoning reel (which neatly links the track onward into the cycle’s postlude). And May It Be signals the Selkie’s more abrupt recognition of her loss, with the first instance of the cycle’s depiction of her wandering mind. Uneasy string arabesques form a telling counterpart to piano chords that threaten to anchor her thoughts. The “voiceless voice” of the (hitherto unvoiced word) Restless takes over for the next song, adopting that very word as its title in a torrent of suffocating imagery and rumbling keyboards invoking the protagonist’s powerlessness in the face of her situation. Stone’s Throw (the title song itself) seems to bring this situation into sharp focus, a desperate perception of rootlessness and an all-too-abundantly-clear realisation for the Selkie that “this beach I sit upon I can’t call home”, a beach that even then is being submerged by the sweeping tides. Her acute desolation may up to this point have been partly assuaged by the sharing of a common experience through a mutual identity with her struggle and loss.
Yes, the initial effect of the Selkie’s intimate confessional may be therapeutic, but by the time we cross over past the cycle’s central point, into the heart-rendingly sensuous, kantele-dappled plea of Selkie’s Song with its wholly inevitable realisation that “the skin won’t fit like it used to, these bones won’t hold it so well”, there is infinitely more pain than gain in the process, and thereafter, things are never quite the same for the Selkie. The strangely warmly glacial winter-scenario In The Cold depicts the defeated Selkie left emotionally out in the bitter, cruel climate with hackles and voices “raised, like banners”. In a masterstroke of emotional seesawing, the Selkie’s vulnerability is conveyed in the ensuing would-be-comforting hymnal of Fall Into You, enveloping and cocooning her delicate voice in a veritable sea of voices and violins. Its uncontrollable ecstasy is short-lived however, as it almost suffocates before the mournful Until The Snow brings a step back into a fresh perspective of detachment in the Selkie’s necessary separation from her partner. This freshness is cleverly conveyed by the introduction of the limpid, crystalline-clear tones of harp into the texture, before the forward-driven chorus section takes over with its determined mantra of “we’ll play and we’ll play And we’ll play these chords Until the snow, until the snow”. After which, Turning The Day is a kind of summation and epilogue, a wishful, outward-probing prayer that chases the light and eventually, via a cathartic chord-change, turns the corner into the fearless resolve of its final section, declaring the Selkie’s deeply-harboured desire to bend space and time just to see her partner’s face again. On the brief instrumental reprise-cum-postlude (Ghost Of A Reel), we hear the fiddler playing for the dance at the end of time, fading from our consciousness as if to signify the cycle beginning over again perhaps? It’s a powerful yet transient image, that’s for sure.
Throughout the album (as indeed had been the case with its predecessors), Rachel’s music commendably refuses to acknowledge specific allegiance to any defined genre or sub-genre but is undoubtedly influenced and inspired by many: among them folk, roots, indie, blues, jazz and even (I’d venture to suggest) a pronounced element of pop-psych from the late-60s/early-70s. Rachel’s highly-developed singing, writing and multi-instrumental talents both seem to know no bounds and observe no boundaries, as she shape-shifts with consummate ease between modes and idioms. And yet, while this tendency renders her music indescribable in the absolute, literal sense, her vision is invariably as clear-sighted as her bewitching vocal delivery. The mildly unconventional (at least by recognised genre standards) structures of the songs may be deceptive in this regard, for there’s always a clear sense of direction to Rachel’s writing, and her imagery is both precise and tantalising in its expression.
On a purely musical (production) basis, Stone’s Throw often exhibits a partly elusive, slightly opaque quality in its rich and aromatic mixdown, imparting an engaging aura of other-worldliness, a feeling of inhabiting a slightly off-kilter alternate universe. This brilliantly mirrors the slightly queasy collation between the worlds of the everyday, Rachel’s own life-story and the time-honoured folklore of the central Selkie legend, and the nature of the lyrics, which are replete with joyously inventive wordplay, as rewarding as they are successful in conveying the essential magic and mystery of the tale. The distinctive conjured soundscapes come courtesy of Rachel’s trusty eclectic collective group of musicians, with a special tonal signature that’s largely characterised by the weaving, keening, almost spectral lines of Lucy River’s violin and the burnished embellishments of Rachel’s own electric guitar and some atmospheric guitar playing from Dylan Fowler and Bill Taylor-Beales, with further important contributions from Rosy Robinson (cello), Paul Gray (bass) and guest appearances from Rachel’s brother Shane (percussion) and Angharad Evans (backing vocals). I’d swear you can hear and feel those Orkney seascapes, the rushing and foaming and ebbing of the waves. Ethereal yet very much present; masterfully conceived and presented, and (is it fanciful to suggest?) this is very probably the sound of space and time bending (if only?… but hey now, be careful what you wish for, Rachel…).
Review by: David KidmanSee link below to view on Folk Radio UK