Album: Natalie Jane Hill – Azalea review

by Paddy Kinsella

From Central Texas, Natalie Jane Hill wrote her record, Azalea, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A range synonymous with the history of folk music, it birthed such household names as Jean Ritchie, Roscoe Holcomb and Doc Watson. As suggested by the title, Azalea is a poetic marvel on the reciprocity of nature. Natalie Jane Hill asked a question by the riverbank and the river had the answer, and it always does. Just as Florist did on If Blue Could Be Happiness with the Catskill Mountains, Hill vividly paints ‘every nook, every bend’ – as she sings on Emerald Blue – of the mountain range, its rhododendrons, its golden primrose and its wild oats – all worthy of their place on the lyrics sheet.

Her voice is the breeze through the trees – the lifeforce which unfolds the hue of the sky from which the range gets its name: the steep falls and the gentle lopes. With an Aldous Harding-like lacquer to it, her voice converges the epochs; the long hovering trills connecting the journey from Harding to Jean Ritchie. She also interweaves past and present instrumentally. Golden Rods is formed of finger pickings and titivating rumblings indebted to the second British folk revival, while All The Things I Never Saw is permeated with a light, meandering riff that would’ve held its own on Jessica Pratt’s Quiet Signs. Quiet and Still though is perhaps the record’s most intriguing track. Entirely instrumental, piano and guitar harmonise together, unbolting the door to a new vista where the sun hangs high, hot on your skin, allowing for a serene, almost ambient, transcendence not found elsewhere on the record. Its success is owed entirely to its ephemeral nature, serving as a bridge between side A and side B.

Quiet and Still aside, we’re happy for her voice and guitar to exist together undisturbed. Azalea is an idle where autumn never penetrates, the flowers always in full bloom and the leaves never persuaded to take leave off their branches. With life reduced of so many temptations right now, I am, like so many of you, ensconced in the season of Azalea. Existing possibly in the only period of my life where I’ve afforded the patterns of spring the attention their beauty deserves. ‘And you think on the time / when the thought to roam never crossed your mind / and all that you’ve known was right by your side / In a wild home,’ Hill sings on An Envy Burns. She couldn’t have known then that by the time Azeala saw the light of day, she’d be addressing people enforced to return to that virginal state. This reminder to enjoy all that exists around you could not have been better timed. With Azalea, Hill takes the sting of restlessness and buries it under the ground of your blue ridge, your impenetrable sanctuary. Watch it grow.

Secret Meeting score: 81

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