You can tell a good singer by the way they sing out of tune. There’s something about the voice of Emily Barker, purveyor of those haunting, desolate cadences on the Wallander theme song Nostalgia, that makes you want her around when you’re feeling blue. The subversive way she flattens and bends the notes – almost like a human harmonica – has turned Barker’s indie-folk whine into a household sound – specifically our living rooms, thanks to the Nordic-noir success of Kenneth Branagh’s TV Wallander.
Live in concert, that beautifully tuned-down vocal sound is surrounded by an old-fashioned harmonium that literally needs air pumping in from beneath, drums and double-bass, an (actual) harmonica strapped to her neck, and her simply picked guitar. Everything is arranged, played and sung to off-key perfection.
Then the Australian-born, Stroud-based songsmith goes and spoils it all by doing numbers from her latest album, Sweet Kind of Blue, with which her downbeat folk roots appear to have become uncomfortably entangled with an upbeat, funky blues genre inhabited by Americana queens Emmylou Harris and Bobbie Gentry.
This concert, in front of a small but perfectly informed Kendal audience, was part of the tour of that new album, cut at the legendary Phillips studios in Memphis, where the likes of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bob Dylan all put needle to groove.
On which subject, Barker announced that recording in Memphis was “all about the groove” – finding it, staying in it. Well, to (unfairly) use the title of one of her best songs from 2015’s Toerag Sessions album, these songs felt like “Little Deaths” in the midst of a vibrant musical evening.
Sweet Kind of Blue, the title track itself, came across as nothing more than the unmemorable pastiche it is, and the Memphis-isation spread through other songs from the album, such as the bland, mid-tempo dancefloor of If We Forget to Dance, where the downbeat turned upbeat and the off-key turned worryingly on-key. The reassuringly bleak soundscape of Little Deaths (with Lukas Drinkwater mellifluous on double bass), the mastery of Nostalgia and the plaintive Blood Moon were all overshadowed by this new, lighter touch.
Barker’s unabashed hero-worship of blues pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe – “a trailblazer, a barrier-breaker, an innovator and an inspiration”– was illustrated with the lovely Sister Goodbye, and she had the expert backing she needed with Drinkwater and Pete Roe, the harmonium-pumper and guitarist who’d doubled up well as the support act.
But only when she returned to the idiom for which she’s best known and loved – that lonely, plaintive voice and guitar, disembodied of all the country-folky-Americana-indie-rocky-funky-bluesy-rootsy-soully-clutter – did Barker’s unique musical talent find its truest voice.
If playing it safe is the most dangerous thing an artist can do, then Emily Barker’s musical fearlessness has to be admired; it’s just a shame her new, tuneful sound should sound so…safe.