Rowan Rheingans : The Lines We Draw Together23.08.2019 : Red Dress Records
There is something autumnal in the mood of Rowan Rheingans' debut solo album, The Lines We Draw Together. It is a mellow, reflective work that deals poetically with bone-hard themes.
The Lines We Draw Together was recorded as a companion piece to her critically acclaimed live show, Dispatches on the Red Dress ("Undramatic yet utterly spellbinding singing and narration" - The Scotsman), which comes to Wales in late October and tours into the next month.
Rheingans is a songwriter, a prolific collaborator and an expressive fiddle and banjo player. She has contributed to Lady Maisery, The Rheingans Sisters and Songs of Separation, and has two BBC Radio Folk Awards to her name.
For the invention and grace with which this new album speaks, it is her finest work yet.
The Lines We Draw Together's ten tracks explore aspects of Rowan's German grandmother's 1940s childhood; taking in memory, identity and trauma, with clear, rare wisdom guiding the writing. For the lyrics alone the album would have huge value, even if the arrangements framing them were lacklustre - but musically The Lines We Draw Together is an affecting, low-key masterpiece.
Throughout the album there is a balance between wonder and despair, as if provoking the listener to a choice.
The opening track, What Birds Are, has the natural serenity of its opening verse suddenly disturbed by a harsh shadow of violence. The songs that follow it develop the theme.
Lines marks out the connections between us all and past generations, with specific, dark memories shading in and out of lyrical focus.
Traces is formed as a long, captivating instrumental punctuated by a sung mediation on memory and war.
A homily on mis-remembering history, Fire, is set against the ebb and flow of a banjo - the lyric testing the idea that real love can ever be tangled in the justification for conflict.
Brave uses fragments of recorded ambient sounds, a short, rapidly circling melody and striking interwoven imagery to make its point that there is no glory in war.
Again finding stark contrast between the undisturbed joy found in nature and human depravity, the minimally arranged Sky was written to commemorate the insight of Dutch diarist Etty Hillesum - who died in Auschwitz in 1943. The subject is apt - Hillesum's hard-wrought spirit ghosts through much of the album.
The Long Walk Home is a gentle waltz in a distraught world as seen through a child's eyes - but the lyric ends with a hopeful couplet, narrated from the future,
"Don't be nervous, little girl, you are the answer..."
To underline that promise, the song closes brightly with a fragment of jazz-piano - an uplifting mood subtly developed by Walls, which uses voice and guitar to sketch the soft delight of dancing ("One of my favourite forms of time travel." as Rheingans states in the CD's notes).
The penultimate piece, Sorrow, is a heavy-hearted lesson - suggesting the need to fully learn from the anguish of the past, or, as the chorus has it,
"We better make some room for sorrow,
Or we will sing a darker tomorrow."
Which leaves room for the eight minutes of instrumental rapture that Keep Breathing offers. "I trust us," the composition's notes assert - if it were released on vinyl, that is what would be scratched in the LP's run-out groove.
Stylistically fluid, the album, and the broader show it is a part of, took Rheingans two years to write. Disturbed by the present, she seems to have found solace in the past,
"For me, this ... is about horror and beauty. It is also about trauma recovery, birdsong, war and waltzes. Hidden in the folds of my own grandmother's story, there is a profound darkness alongside, I think, a deeply hopeful message about humanity's capacity for transformation."
"It feels important, in our current social and political climate of half-truths and fake news, fuelling a collective inertia that sometimes feels akin to a dangerous forgetting or mis-remembering of history, to share this story. I hope it will spur conversations about how we can resist the rise of the far right in constructive, supportive, creative ways. It is about the peace-making potential of telling different kinds of stories..."
Rheingans' collaborators (including Jack McNeill and Michelle Stoddart) have helped her do full justice to her vision. She has looked at the bleak maelstrom we face, reflected on her family history, and written something of real moral worth.
In the end, there is optimism and creative purpose. There is light in the music, and hope in the words.
Phil Ochs said, "In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty". The Lines We Draw Together is an exquisite album, and anyone who hears it, or sees Dispatches on the Red Dress, should know some new, quiet truth in their heart.
ROWAN RHEINGANS I Lines