Album review: CHRIS WHILE AND JULIE MATTHEWS – Infinite Sky

Fat Cat Records [Release date 04.02.13]

Chris While and Julie Matthews have been a musical partnership for 20 years, both as members of The Albion Band and as a multi instrumental duo. Julie has made her name as an award winning songwriter and Chris has been a member of Fairport Convention and has been described by Eddie Reader as: ‘the best singer in England’.

‘Infinite Sky’ distils their magic and bottles it as 11 tracks that explore folk, country and roots music with pristine harmony singing, delicate instrumentation and finely honed song craft. The polished production and crisp mastering captures the duo at the very height of their powers in a band format.

This album is both moving and exhilarating by turns, and the feel good spirit of the album is neatly captured by Julie’s ‘This Beautiful Life’: ‘It’s a beautiful life if you live it, Hold onto your nerve and roll with it’.

‘Infinite Sky’ is also an aptly titled album as the music reaches for the stars, with not a wasted lyric or note. The lyrics are enunciated with grace, emotion and conviction and the vocal swoops and uplifting hooks create a melodic flow. Best of all are those moments when the two vocalists coalesce, as on the hook of the 9/11 story ‘Inconvenient Hero’ and when Kellie While adds a telling harmony vocal on Chris’s ‘Half A World Away’.

Occasionally there’s a subtle shift of emphasis as the instruments evoke lyric intent, most notably on Andy Cutting’s aching melodeon on the moving ‘Nie Wieder (Never Again)’. And while the arrangements inevitably focus on the vocals, the songs are interwoven by 7 musicians and singers who really get inside the music.

This is an album shaped by mood, feel and different tempos and it is given extra depth by occasional story based narratives. The duo cleverly shift from Julie’s deep ‘Nie Wieder’ (Never Again)’ – dedicated to persecuted athlete Gretel Bergmann -  to the jaunty, uplifting optimism of the co-written ‘Shaky Town’. The song features some lovely slide from Marin Simpson and is about the rebuilding of Christchurch in New Zealand in the aftermath of the earthquake. It shows the duo are just as happy to write about meaningful events as they are conjuring up the rich imagery of long distant love songs  such as Chris’s folky ‘South America (Come Home Soon)’.

Julie’s ‘I Apologise’ is a highlight and opens with a whispered close to the mic intimacy and a gently voiced acoustic guitar before the band slips into a delicate groove.  Chris takes the lead vocal and Julie adds immaculate harmonies on a song beautifully shaped by drummer Brian Hargreaves: ‘Because I hurt you, and all that I managed was two words that sound like lies. I apologise’

The band veers towards country rock on Chris’s relationship song ‘Come on Over’ and they take things up a notch on the jazzy ‘Broken Crash Barrier’, which is curiously at odds with the story of the doomed narrator.  The closing poetic flourish of ‘Hope Springs’ provides the line for the album title: ‘And the heart can detect it, In the smallest of things, And when you least expect it to, Hope springs. Til every last drop of the ocean runs dry, While there’s a beautiful sun and moon, In an infinite sky’.

‘Infinite Sky’ is a real work of art and has a depth of song writing that is matched by the duo’s peerless vocals. Inevitably this album will be labelled roots music and missed by many, which is shame as it’s worthy of much greater exposure. ***** (5/5)

Review by Pete Feenstra

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