Album reviews

Christine Tobin – ‘Returning Weather’

Christine Tobin – Returning Weather
(Trail Belle Records TBR05. Review by AJ Dehany)

Returning Weather is Irish composer-singer Christine Tobin’s nine-part meditation on the nature of home and homecoming. This fine evocative song cycle charts a personal journey as well as a continuing refinement of the Irish singer-songwriter’s craft as a writer of music and sung poetry. She and guitarist husband Phil Robson moved to New York in 2015, but in 2020 returned to Ireland. This commission by the Dock Arts Centre blends influences from jazz, folk and avant garde art song with a mature fusion of musical and poetic sympathies.

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Tobin’s most recent albums have been thematic, exploring different bodies of work by poets and poetic songwriters. Tapestry Unravelled (2010) took on the songs of Carole King, Sailing to Byzantium (2012) the poetry of Yeats, Pelt (2016) Paul Muldoon, and on A Thousand Kisses Deep (2014) the poetical songs of Leonard Cohen. The double theme of poetry and song is very much continued in Returning Weather, which comprises eight of her own compositions, with one setting of a poem by Eva Salzman. Remarkably, her writing both of lyric and music stands up to all of these celebrated geniuses, even bringing together the paths of a journey winding through her whole catalogue.

The album begins with a field recording of the bustle and raillery of New York City, a sonic emblem of what they left behind when they returned to Ireland. David Power’s uilleann pipes and whistles always bring a Celtic flavour, especially doubled with Cora Venus Lunny’s violin and viola. Opener “Loch Glinne (part 1)” introduces an Irish-ish melodic richness, while midway instrumental “Mullach na Sí” goes full Irish with a jig bordering on diddle-eye. “Hare and Crow” strikes out into avant garde territory with bells, ticking, vocal caws and utterances, violin pizzicatos and a nagging two-note piano ostinato; it willingly breaks up the flow of pleasantness with a bit of wiggy eccentricity. 

In the ambitious twelve-minute four-part album centrepiece, a setting of Eve Salzman’s poem “Still, Life”, Phil Robson hits some jarring electronic guitar that depending on your mood can feel like a bit of a sound clash in a primarily acoustic album, but nobody’s calling him Judas. Pianist Steve Hamilton‘s looming block chords are as unsettling as his luminous balladic playing is pleasing on the ear. There are many fine instrumental moments on the album, but of course at centre stage are the vocals and the words, and the singular presence of Christine Tobin.

The opening songs establish a narrative sense about the shock and trepidation of returning to Ireland: “Like fish in a barrel I gaze in awe at the inevitable, a homecoming that will only spark, fuse and explode.” On “Callow”, the topography of the land fuses as both physical, pastoral and mental projection: “Far beyond the outstretched sky I stand firmly with both feet on the ground. I could make a home here.”

You can smell the petrichor in Tobin’s meditations on mental-physical landscapes, beautiful pastoral evocations rich in natural imagery, colours, scents and seasons. Run your finger along the paint cracking on cottage walls and crumbling barns, built by people but slowly disintegrating and melting back into the landscape. Every sedge and stream is pregnant with meaning and personal reflection, at one point literally reflection: “The water glassy and brown is both portal and mirror. Through contemplation we make sense of the present.”

At times this poetic interiority on the nature of being in nature opens out into wider historical resonances. In “Loch Glinne (part 2)” the meditative pastoral mood of “The peace and the beauty of Loch Glinne, the stillness of the water; above the nearby lanes the trees” is interrupted by events from Irish history 1921 and 1980: “Strange to contemplate that a darkness in the past ripped through these woods and took the lives of four men, two so young died fighting for the green. Sixty years later two more died because of cold.” The brutality of The Troubles is dyed and stained into the landscape itself.

In one of the most touching moments, at the end of “Gennie’s Welcome”, Tobin recalls in song the genuine surprise she felt at the warmth of her reception upon returning. The lines go beyond a simple personal meaning. The album communicates a rich message promoting the interdependence of people, whether separated by geography, race or ideology, or whether thrown back together, as we all are on this single shared blue dot fenced off into arbitrary camps:

How ever it falls, I am grateful to those

Who show me where home is;

Family is not blood—

Family is love.

AJ Dehany writes independently about music, art and stuff.

LINKS: Returning Weather on Bandcamp

Christine’s tour dates 

Promo sampler of final rehearsal filmed at The Dock, Carrick on Shannon November 2021

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