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Zoe Wren - Reckless River

  by Malcolm Carter

published: 22 / 12 / 2020

Zoe Wren - Reckless River
Label: Zoe Wren Music
Format: CD


Compelling and haunting debut album from London-born but now Switzerland-based singer-songwriter and folk musician Zoe Wren who has released one of the best albums of the decade

There was little doubt that Zoe Wren was going to make waves not only in folk music circles but, by adding her own unique twist to the classic folk music of yore, to a new generation who might otherwise have missed out on the genre. Wren brings a fresh new vision to folk music, so much so that, while there is no denying that her roots and influences lie firmly in that genre, she has the talent not to let those influences hamper her vision for a moment. After a handful of EPs released under her own name Wren has also released EPs and performed with Jasmine Watkins as harmony duo Roswell (check out their cover of Abba’s ‘SOS’ on YouTube for starters) and now releases her debut album, ‘Reckless River’. And now there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Zoe Wren has arrived. The ten songs on ‘Reckless River’ are her most personal and accomplished to date. Wren’s recent move from London to Lugano in southern Switzerland informs many of the songs on ‘Reckless River’. While we can only hope that she returns to her hometown at some point, if Wren’s restlessness and desire to explore new surroundings produces songs of this quality with lyrics that confirm Wren picks up on all that is happening around her, we can forgive her if she makes a few more stops on her way back home. Half the album was co-produced by Wren with Tristano Galimberti while the multi-talented Lauren Deakin-Davies, who has worked with Wren in the past, produced the other five tracks. The combination of their talents has always produced outstanding music, so finding that Deakin-Davies has once again teamed up with Wren and also lent her skill on various instruments on certain tracks here is a bonus. There are lovely musical nuances scattered throughout the album but at the core is that voice. Wren’s crystal clear but warming vocals are simply outstanding. Admittedly Wren is not the only female singer-songwriter with a voice that makes the listener take note immediately and draws you into a different world for the duration of a song, but surely she’s in the top three of our homegrown female vocalists. When listening to Wren sing it seems that no one else matters. ‘Smoky Sunrise’ opens the album. “It’s another rainy late December Saturday/I’m dreaming up some ways that I can fly away,” sings Wren as she reminisces about her time in London busking. Anyone who has left the place they love will instantly recognize the feeling Wren describes - “But I know that there’s a million reasons more to stay/I don’t have delusions/I’ve just got a wandering mind.” As a lyricist Wren has always been outstanding but on this album, on just the opening track, she displays that there are few who match her. And the line “only Joni knows how blue I’m feeling now” is another indication of how Wren is unafraid to show her influences proudly. Last time this writer put a few words down about Wren I mentioned the name of Joan Baez; maybe it’s part due to that aforementioned line, but, as huge a talent as Joni Mitchell is, I certainly have no reservations in making comparisons between Mitchell and Wren. It’s still early days for Wren but with this album she has proven that she has earned the right to be mentioned with such highly regarded artists. The double bass courtesy of Jonny Wickham (which adds so much texture to half the songs on the album) coupled with Wren’s affecting vocal as the opening song ends with the lines “Oh I want this for forever/But I need something, something else right now” is a spine-tingling moment. Wren wrote all the songs on ‘Reckless River’ except for the traditional ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’ and the second song on the album, ‘Elephants and Drums’ which she co-wrote with Nathan Miller, the album takes its title from a line in the chorus. The haunting atmosphere created by the music is matched by Wren’s vocal performance on this song. It appears that Wren supplied all the vocals on this song; they are simply stunning. “I thought I saw a glimpse of heaven through the hurt,” Wren sings. There are those who will see that glimpse in her vocals. ‘Cecilia’ is Wren’s take on the traditional folk song. In drawing on her own family’s experiences for inspiration the song is based on the story of her own Slovene great grandmother. The song opens with Cecilia walking through the cloisters to be “sent off to a man she’s not known/To care for his children like they were her own/And her dreams faded into the sky”. It’s a heartbreaking story which takes a heartbreaking twist as it unfolds; again, a perfect example of how talented a lyricist Wren is. ‘Welcome Here’ is an astute observation of the homeless people Wren encountered when busking; again, it displays her lyrical skills and the fact that the listener feels optimistic by the close of the song also gives weight to this. Of course, having a voice like Wrens is no disadvantage. It’s another stunning vocal performance. There’s slight bluesy feel to a couple of songs, ‘Come Home’ and especially ‘Don’t Touch My Guitar’ which details the troubles street performers can suffer from hecklers although given some of her lyrics maybe it’s the trouble makers who come off worse. “Just because I’m small and dainty doesn’t mean that I don’t know Kung Fu/So please think twice before you irritate me/Or you might find the tables turned on you.” At least this writer feels safe in the knowledge that with music this good I’d never intentionally upset Wren! ‘Ring in Your Pocket’ is another song inspired by Wren's time busking. After presumably being turned down by his girlfriend. a passing stranger dropped an engagement ring into Wren’s guitar case. Once more Wren ends the tale with hope shining through and the listener feels they are standing there watching this story unfold as Wren's words paint the picture. On ‘London Town’, the title says it all really. One of Wren’s prettiest melodies and the opening line “Sally works the late-night shift on every Friday night/Ten hours at the hospital” the song is another obviously inspired by Wren's time in the capital. Maybe it’s unusual for an artist who has roots in the folk genre but there are many times that Wren’s lyrics bring to mind the work of Ray Davies. Yep, she’s that good. As for Wren’s take on the traditional ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’, although it’s been tackled many times after what must be five decades (!) of listening to what was surely the definitive version by Shelagh McDonald, Wren has breathed new, unexpected life into the song. It’s a stunning arrangement and rendition and once more shows that Wren is pushing boundaries. The last song on the album is beautiful. ‘What If’ was inspired by Wren’s experience leading singing workshops in prisons for the Sing Inside charity. Another of Wren’s pretty melodies and with nice instrumental touches, it’s a standout on an album where every track shines. Hopefully with the release of her first full album Zoe Wren will capture even more listeners, ‘Reckless River’ is not only one of the best of 2020. It’s one of the best albums of the last decade.

Track Listing:-
1 Smoky Sunrise
2 Elephants and Drums
3 Cecilia
4 Welcome Here
5 Come Home
6 Let No Man Steal Your Thyme
7 Ring in Your Pocket

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