Review by Conn Thornton
Laura Quirke & Joshua Burnside
‘Into the Half Light’
On a collaborative EP between two of Northern Ireland’s most innovative songwriters of late, Joshua Burnside and Laura Quirke present a series of beautiful snapshots on modern life with the 18-minute gem of an EP, ‘In the Half-Light'.
Burnside and Quirke had crossed paths before the EP had even been conceived, even sharing the stage and supporting each other in their efforts in 2019. Their duet at the Duncairn earlier this year was when the two artists started to formulate a plan to work together. What started off as a one-off recording session grew into a four track EP that explores themes of escapism and a search for the unknown, conveyed through delicate imagery that only artists such as Burnside and Quirke could pull off so effortlessly.
Burnside’s latest solo release, ‘Higher Places’, is a much more grandiose affair than the music on ‘In the Half-Light' - they both come from similar places, but the EP has a more distinct baroque sound as opposed to the album’s chamber-folk approach. Laura Quirke’s work with Lemoncello shares this baroque sound with ‘In the Half-Light', especially Lemoncello’s ‘Oil and Water’ EP. Quirke and Burnside’s solo music share so many similar qualities yet manage to retain their own unique sound. Therefore a collaboration between these two particular artists could not be a more exciting concept, and its execution on this EP is really something to be beheld.
The EP opens with the lead single ‘Taking the Wheel’, which is backed by a bare instrumental led by guitar and banjo – the guitar plays chords with some beautiful extended harmony while the banjo interjects with short licks here and there to add colour. This instrumental sounds like it could have come straight off of ‘Seven Swans’ by Sufjan Stevens and the stripped-back nature of it allows the vocal harmonies between Quirke and Burnside to really shine through. Something that makes ‘Taking the Wheel’ such a standout song is its poetic manner of storytelling. It presents itself as a short theatrical drama telling the story of two people, Sarah and David, taking a car journey frought with tension. Quirke herself underlined that the song is about not feeling in control of something and “the need to break free from it, the desire for an escape from the mundane”, which is of course the central theme of the EP. This beautiful storytelling coupled with lyricism that could rival the work of Bon Iver (“The splashing rain on the window screen / Straining the drain of nature’s spleen”) makes ‘Taking the Wheel’ a powerful and dynamic opener for ‘In the Half-Light'.
‘Far Away the Hills Are Green’ follows on and immediately captures a snapshot of the same kind of scene – rain beating down on the window of a conservatory, perhaps the same rain that Sarah and David drove through in the opening track. Burnside takes the lead in this track, in contrast to Quirke doing the same in the opener. Burnside’s vocals pivot, rise and fall to their lowest depths within the first minute, giving a distinctly moodier atmosphere, which is then layered on with the solo violin that comes in later on as well as Quirke’s harmonies. ‘Far Away the Hills Are Green’ contrasts the opener’s rich storytelling by creating hazier imagery through its intricate lyricism and texturally rich sonic palate – the last minute sees a gradual crescendo, with layers upon layers of vocals adding to this rich texture. Through the hazy imagery and broken-up lyricism (“I wish we were Californians”), the theme of escaping the mundane is apparent, even in the title of the track.
In ‘Rana the Fortunate’, Burnside and Quirke take turns to depict dreamlike imagery through the lyrics against a soft finger-picked guitar backing – this track distinctly has a traditional folk song feel to it, more so than the other tracks on the EP, which are characterised by their extended harmonic colours and postmodern lyricism. ‘Rana the Fortunate’ then builds up gradually with its instrumental, first adding a solo violin against the vocal duet, then adding more depth with drums and a harp. The vocal melody does feel distinctly inspired by traditional Irish folk songs, with its little ornamentations decorating it here and there and the way it ebbs and flows having a distinctly nostalgic feel to it, especially during the quieter section in the middle, where the vocals are really given centre stage.
The title track closes the EP, at first putting the spotlight on an ever-so-slightly out of tune piano. She has a couple of false starts in the first minute and laughs it off, giving the song an undefinable kind of charm. Most artists would try to remove blemishes like this from the finished product, but Quirke makes these false starts almost feel calculated and planned – they flow together so seamlessly that it’s hard to even register them as mistakes on the first listen. ‘In the Half-Light' features only Quirke’s voice and a piano, meaning it is far and away the most stripped back and barest song here. She wears her heart on her sleeve, using some of the most delicate lyricism on the entire EP (“Someday this love will have nowhere to go / And I will wish that I gave you more”). Rather than exploring the theme of escapism, it feels like a very loose continuation of ‘Taking the Wheel’, a reconciliation of sorts between Sarah and David, or perhaps a confession of regret that they could not love each other more than they should have. This gives the EP a sense of finality in its relatively short runtime and provides a circular narrative, of sorts.