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Julie Byrne | Rooms With Walls and Windows

by Tom Johnson

One of music’s most compelling attributes is its ability to make us, the consumers, love, cherish and miss people and places that we’ve never been a part of. Great writers seem to have an ability to lift the listener out of our own surroundings and deposit us straight in to the heart of the stories that they themselves have created. In doing this we become attached to them, to the point where, despite a lack of context or history, we can sometimes feel as deeply woven in to the stories and situations as the person who created them.

Julie Byrne is undeniably an artist of this magnitude, but quite how she manages to cast such an intoxicating spell isn’t particularly clear. The songs that make-up the Chicago-via-Seattle artists new album are piercingly honest and reflective, but they aren’t character-based songs in the vein of other great story-tellers. Scenes aren’t set, circumstances aren’t clarified, instead what we’re given are small fragments of a narrative; fleeting moments of something far greater, something we have never been a part of. And yet it manages to be overwhelmingly affecting. Beautifully composed and suspended by the most delicate of threads, Byrne presents monochrome landscapes, and the sorrowful characters found within and somehow, when we’re buried within them, they feel like all we’ve ever known.

Much like the plain-faced simplicity of its title, new album ‘Rooms With Walls and Windows‘ doesn’t just draw inspiration from the rudimentary commodities that surround our every day lives, it almost pitches them as a central character. They become the protagonist and the main-stays throughout the record, however Byrne delivers all of her work with such a devastatingly human outlook that the blandness of these centre-pieces is never replicated within the songs themselves. Instead what many of the tracks present is a document of a life that is simply passing by, seen through the eyes of someone who has nobody to tell the story to. They’re the bottled sound of the complete shortness of life and the encroaching sadness that occasionally brings.

What’s most impressive about ‘Rooms With Walls and Windows‘ is the way in which these listless events and objects suddenly take on far greater meaning when they become the only connection to something, anything, else. The way we take our coffee, the colour of houses, the flight of the birds. These ruminations come across like the weightiest of reflections despite the fact that, really, they mean nothing at all. It’s not just the way she describes these insignificance’s that makes this record so touching, but also the way in which she delivers them. Her voice is simply astounding. Whether presented as a sorrowful sigh (‘Young Wife‘, ‘Attached to Us Like Butcher Wrap‘), or as a somewhat hardened and defiant call-to-arms (‘Holiday‘, ‘Marmalade‘), it’s the light that guides everything. It breathes life and and reason and passion to the smallest of phrases, and even when uttering the most mournful of observations it never feels beaten. Beaten down, perhaps, but never beaten. There is a fire burning it in, no matter how subdued it might be and it’s what keeps the whole thing from simply falling apart. It’s the tie that binds, the hand that holds and never lets go.

Taken as a whole, the album is undoubtedly dejected. Sadness hangs like a cloak across the ten tracks, like it does to all of those who tread a more dispirited path through life. However, as is so often the way, there are moments within where positivity reigns. ‘Prism Song‘ is a wide-eyed paean to the completely absurd amount of luck and chance that’s involved in one person falling in love with another, while ‘Butter Lamb‘ is almost playful, with lyrics that flip between fairy tale imagery and wistful romanticism’s. In fact, despite the melancholy that prevails through much of the rest of the album, you get the feeling that this positive nature is always there. Like a smile worn slightly too late, like sentiments thought but never shared, it hides there somewhere, just under the surface, trying desperately to raise its head for long enough to make a sound and be heard.

Ultimately what makes us cling to this record is the fact that it feels completely ageless. It doesn’t tie itself to any particular time or place. It’s a folk record, but not in the classic sense; there are refined elements of psych that creep in every now and again, most notably on the absorbing instrumental tracks. It could almost be filed as Americana, but there is nothing particularly American about it. If anything, it’s most reminiscent of the hushed glow of Nick Drake; its ambiguity heightened by a voice that even at its most indecipherable still completely captivates. The effect of which is almost crippling. The quiet voice in the background that rings so loud you can barely move.

It’s this over-riding sense of uncertainty and vagueness which allows us to claim this record as our own. We open our arms and our chests and we fully embrace it because, more than anything, we want it to flourish. We yearn for it to have that brick house, with a porch wrapped around, and we want more than anything for it to reach a place where it can sit there, on that porch, looking out at the world around it and, instead of finding melancholy in even the most arbitraryof causes, to reach a place where it can simply sit, and watch, and be content in doing so. We want this because, ultimately, it’s what we want for ourselves, and because it really is the small things that matter the most.

For someone as unheralded as Byrne is – specifically on this side of the Atlantic – what she has achieved on Rooms With Walls and Windows is simply astonishing. It’s a touching and heartfelt collection of songs, but more than that, it feels truly special. She feels truly special. Not just within the boundaries of 2014, but within music itself; both as an art form and as a document of what it might mean to be here and to be alive.

Rooms With Walls and Windows is out now on Orindal Records.

Buy it on vinyl/digital here.

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