Album Review | Dharma Records | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 4/5
Since winning the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award in 2009 with her brother Joe Henwood, Megan has released a trio of albums, this being the third and an EP with Jackie Oates. Over the last six years, Making Waves, Head Heart Land and now River have charted Henwood’s slow burn development into an accomplished writer performer and musician. With each album you find yourself thinking. “Loved the last album but this one is something else again!” River, from its beguiling cover and the first note to its slow burning end is the sound of a major talent drawing all the strands of their art together and releasing something that really demands your attention. There is a maturity, a confidence and a depth here that shines out of every note. “Join The Dots” the opening track is a tightly wound exercise in space and tension. Atmospheric electric guitar is teased and caressed like a solo Jeff Buckley track while Megan Henwood’s glorious voice alternates between brooding and soaring. “Fresh Water” is another intimate emotional vocal that glows and burns from the speakers. Backing is tasteful and understated, noir trumpet and washes of pedal steel build a Hissing of Summer Lawns era Joni Mitchell like atmosphere. It’s a simple lyric of love and desire lifted skywards by the sublime music and Henwood’s torch singer vocal. It begins the watery analogies and references that run through the album, connecting and enriching the tracks. “The Dolly” is a melancholic song of resigned regret, reflective lyrics peppered with Oxford’s real life and the hypnotic lilt of Thea Gilmour or a Cotswolds Ani Difranco. “Seventh” is one of the many tracks on this stunning album that suggests Megan is growing steadily beyond her literate folk roots beginnings. The huge sounding acoustic guitar that again suggests strident Difranco is joined by a sparkling ambience and space on the voice and keyboards that carries the whole song higher and higher. A slippery dubby edge to Tom Excell’s excellent production lifts the song. “House On The Hill” is another richly atmospheric song and another hymn to regret and love. The atmosphere, the skittering percussion, Henwood’s smouldering vocals and those other worldly vocal choruses mean this track is going to be snapped up as film or TV music, sound tracking a pivotal fraught or charged moment. Tracks like “Rainbows” and “Apples” are examples of those perfect skeletal acoustic tracks that Megan has always done so well, but this time they sparkle and crackle with a presence and power that suggests this might be a real game changer of an album. “Peace Be The Alien”, a call to take a moment and chill simmers with that same energy. Megan’s voice is an instrument of beauty as she fills every syllable with potency and power. Like Chris Wood she manages to slip perfectly, like water, through some complex stanzas and make them sound like spiritual soul music and her phrasing effortless. “Oh Brother”, a song about Joe Henwood, musician and builder of the straw bale studio where the album was recorded, takes the beautiful analogy of the river as a journey. Megan’s sense of love and pride just floods through the song, there is clearly great power in these Henwoods. Beneath the jaunty rhythm of “Used To Be So Kind”, as the title suggests there is a dark bite to the lyric. An examination of the fear of failure to achieve your own high standards, of the grind of life’s knocks and the way that the grass is always greener in other people’s gardens. Like all true art, beneath the beauty in these songs there is a depth and hidden darkness. “The Craftsman” continues the tinged melancholy with just a guitar and that glorious voice Megan wrings the emotion out of the wreckage of the end of a relationship. “L’Appel Du Vide” is a huge anthem of a song that rivals Leonard Cohen best for dark potency and a roller coaster ride. “L’Appel Du Vide”, the call of the void, describes that dark fascination to jump from high places and the seductive draw of danger. That key unlocks the lyric into a series of darkly reflective moments, the river here is a deadly force, one of a series of dangers that the song courts. Called and tempted by actual and metaphysical perils, the way that Megan describes riding the edge of danger at the end of an ordinary day is utterly chilling. The final sense is that, acutely aware of the perils senses heightened she stands on the edge of the Cornish Atlantic revelling in the glory of living.