I had never heard of the phrases ‘folk-gaze’ or ‘dream-country’ before, but I can’t think of better descriptors for Joana Serrat and her record Cross The Verge. Joana may be known to some of you already, as she has graced the illustrious playlist of Lauren Laverne on BBC 6 Music, which is no mean feat. Lauren has spoken very highly of her, praising her production and her songwriting, and it seems she has a history of similar acclaim.
Her first album, released in 2012, was the self-edited The Relief Sessions, and due to its quality, she was chosen as ‘Best Artist of the Week’ by the Nashville website Noisetrade. In 2014, Serrat released Dear Great Canyon, her second album. It was produced by Howard Bilerman, Grammy nominee for Arcade Fire’s Funeral, and won the ‘Album of the Year’ award by Premios Pop-Eye in Spain.
This already impressive CV takes us to Cross The Verge, Joana’s hauntingly beautiful third album. Joana describes it as an album that “lays bare all the cracks, inconsistencies and fears that come with life…revealing itself to be an especially beautiful tribute to the acknowledgement of loss and the acceptance of the uncertain.” Reuniting with Howard Billerman, she approaches a mix of intimate and larger than life songs relying on great instrumentation to create the sounds that help her get her message across. This is evident on the opening track ‘Lonely Heart Reverb’. It’s moody atmospherics being sliced through with a crisp bass guitar, adding smooth and relaxing melodies which play around in the dense instrumentation.
It’s all very reminiscent of U2, Arcade Fire, and other big sounding bands. What is impressive is how this sound doesn’t overwhelm Joana; in fact, it allows her songwriting to come alive, especially on certain tracks such as recent 6 music staple ‘Saskatoon (Break of Dawn)’. The track opens with a jangling guitar, instantly familiar to those of you heavily into indie rock. The track also includes piano interludes which seek to provide a simple and effective melodic touch. In particular, it reminded me of Fleetwood Mac in its rhythms and vocals.
Another stand out is the first of the two duets on the album, ‘Cloudy Heart’. Joana teams up with the acclaimed Neil Halstead for a track rich in country and Americana. The slide guitar plays a prominent role in the intro, giving the impression that we are back in the saloon rather than lost in the mountains, making the song much more visceral and close. Both guests on this album have great vocals that compliment Joana as the male tenor and baritone voices fill a nice sonic void in the mix, making them sound fuller and rounded.
There is a slight lull in the track listing around the folk ballad ‘Flags’, which I didn’t find memorable. It’s tough in a chilled, atmospheric piece of work like this; sometimes a couple of the songs are lost in the overall track listing. In my opinion, the vocal effects are too heavy in ‘Flags’ and could do with a little more clarity since the lyrical content can get lost. I felt like it didn’t add anything to the album.
Things pick up in the next track, ‘Desert Valley’. The vocals are clearer; the lyrics come through, and the instrumentation is lovely. All throughout this album, the band is skilled and does enough to carry the songs without breaking the meaningful and reflective tone. This track showcases that with subtle drums complimenting the rest of the track and a clash of distorted guitars which break through like thunder on an otherwise clear night. It’s simple but effective.
‘Lover’ could sit nicely on any Springsteen acoustic album. A stripped down but essential tale of unrequited love. Including a repeated refrain of “I love you”, which rather than desperate or passionate comes across as acceptance after a long battle with doubt; it’s quite subtle and powerful.
Then comes one of my personal favourites, ‘Oh Winter Come’. A quiet and desperate plea for winter to come so Joana can melt away. It’s a song about accepting the bracing cold of isolation and disillusionment with love, work and life. The Enya-esque interlinking vocal patterns are used to create a winter effect; the flakes, cold and mist feel very real. It’s a necessary bittersweet taste of the Yin in an album full of Yang.
Juxtaposing the last track in terms of sound, ‘Solitary Road’ is very country and though more upbeat covers similar lyrical territory to ‘Oh Winter Come’. I feel it’s the most compact and well-executed song in the set. A favourite. Almost basement tapes-esque, but playful and sombre at the same time.
The album is varied and likes to alternate between atmospheric soundscapes, giving rise to images such as misty mornings on mountains, all the way down to rootsy country songs sung in the local bar. It picks up the pace toward its conclusion with the title track ‘Cross the Verge’, finishing like ‘Rebellion’ did on Arcade Fire’s Funeral. Strong and loud. Almost like a sermon being given to a congregation, the last grasp at redemption.
The closing track, ‘Your Gold Could Be Mine’, is a smooth, short and soft ballad to close out the album. Its place is reflective of the album as a whole balancing a dichotomy of soft and hard, big and small, darkness and light, loneliness and love. It’s a fine piece of work that does a superb job in building up atmosphere, even though songs can get a little lost in the mire.