Ms Amy Birks will be known to many of us as one third of the Beatrix Players, who came to prominence with their debut album three years ago. I came across them supporting Big Big Train, and a striking act they were with their distinctive brand of atmospheric folk-tinged songs of rare beauty and substance. It would appear that the band have run their course, as Ms Amy is now embarking on a solo voyage of discovery, with this her debut solo release.
It occupies a similar sound world, with many of the songs benefiting from the collaborative talents of Jess Kennedy, and fans of the Beatrix Players are likely to enjoy this, but there is an evolution here. Many of the songs seem to be noticeably personal, confessional even, and there are some dark places explored on this collection. Dig beneath the sweetly smooth veneer, and we find Ms Amy baring her soul repeatedly with lyrics which can only be based on bitter experience.
The album opens though with the relative safety of a song based on a Daphne du Maurier novel, Jamaica Inn. I can’t help but draw a comparison with the great Kate Bush, and her debut single Wuthering Heights which was similarly inspired, and although far less melodramatic, Jamaica Inn is haunting in its own way, and is a great scene setting piece. We may as well get the other obvious comparison out of the way too, and that’s Tori Amos, who coincidentally also wrote a song with the same title. Amy has a way of lyrical phrasing which reminds me of Tori, and vocal inflections which hint at Kate, but to be honest she has enough identity of her own to rise above such comparisons and plough her own furrow.
Several songs are based on relationship breakdown, and perhaps they provide her with some cathartic relief. By her own admission some of these songs are still quite angry, and others more reflective and forgiving. The quality which shines through is honesty and integrity, something the world needs more of in these dark days. Unlike the Heart, More and With All That I Am all vividly deal with this subject from different angles, but all with the sort of observations that only come from first hand experience. The most painfully honest song, however, deals with sexual abuse, and is transfixing in its personal nature. Say Something, for that reason, is probably the most memorable track so far, and is quite affecting and moving, despite (or because of) it’s simplicity.
Moving on, we also have historical stories, with two songs based on wives of Henry VIII, Catherine (of Aragon) and All the Fault of the Lady Anne (Boleyn). Each song takes a view on the fates of these women and are fascinating and beautiful vignettes. One wonders if the next album will continue with the next two?! The Road to Gordes is based on Amy’s days in France presumably, and conjures the essence of the region with remarkable aplomb. I Wish, on the other hand, has a very Spanish flavour, and includes the unmistakable flamenco flourishes of one Steve Hackett. Our Ms Amy is well connected, or perhaps just not backward in coming forward when she wants a favour? Whatever, it’s perfect, and she gets her wish!
Closing track Keeps You Guessing has an interesting lilt which does just that, and rounds off this album in fine style. Throughout the album it’s the songs which take centre stage, and the crystal clear voice of the lady herself, but the musicianship is first rate, despite the fact that for the most part they simply give colour and texture to the compositions. I must though mention Oliver Day who plays guitar and mandolin throughout, and is quietly excellent.
So, I find this to be quite an exciting record. Whilst it is in some ways modest, there is such a passionate honesty at work here, and as a first step on the solo road, it is a great start. And there are hints that she may be able to push the envelope, really let go. If this is the case, and I have no reason to doubt it, Ms Amy Birks could very well end up emulating the great female artists I have mentioned earlier. I’d really like to see her go for it!
01. Jamaica Inn (4:16)
02. Unlike the Heart (3:56)
03. More (4:54)
04. Not Every Night (2:16)
05. With All That I Am (3:25)
06. Say Something (3:23)
07. Catherine (3:57)
08. All the Fault of the Lady Anne (4:17)
09. Road to Gordes (4:00)
10. I Wish (3:52)
11. Keeps You Guessing (4:20)
Total Time – 42:36
Amy Birks – Lead Vocals, Piano, Backing Vocals, Samples, Percussion (on I Wish)
Andrew Birks – Backing Vocals
Oliver Day – Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Mandolin
John Hackett – Flute
Caroline Lavelle – Cello
Maria Kroon – Violin
Emanuela Monni – Drums
Steve Hackett – Classical Guitar (on I Wish)
Romain Thorel – Piano (on Keeps You Guessing)
Callum Greenaway – Piano (on I Wish)
Ian Burdge – Cello (on I Wish)
Nick Wollage – Ukulele Bass (on I Wish), Percussion (on I Wish)
Penkhull Village Brass – Brass (on Say Something)
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 3rd April 2020