I have to be upfront and declare that I’ve always been a sucker for the worlds in which Josephine Foster places her music. Even her own image, a kind of anti-image without all the trappings female artists are supposed to use to navigate the entertainment industry, I find beguiling. Like the sound of her actual voice, it is completely out of step with established norms. I don’t normally like overt affectation in a singer’s voice, but Foster can float operatically in her strange faux-accent and I love it. It probably helps that the first work of hers I encountered, 2004’s All The Leaves Are Gone, credited to Josephine Foster & The Supposed, was a strange update of Byrdsian raga rock (which I love), while she currently resides, with her Spanish husband and collaborator, Victor Herrero, in his native country, the country of my own mother’s birth and to which I always delight in returning. The fact that his flamenco leanings have coloured Foster’s work indelibly is just one other aspect I find speaking directly to me. So, I end up struggling to analyse her work objectively. There’s just too much that is irresistible for me to have any response but pure delight.
No More Lamps In The Morning is one of the most stripped back of Foster’s releases. Aside from a lonely, wailing cello in ‘The Garden Of Earthly Delights’ and ‘Second Sight’ (the latter on which it is used as a strange, almost electronic drone), the entire sum total of instrumentation is Foster’s folksily plucked nylon string guitar, Herrero’s classical-flamenco guitar lead improvisations, and Foster’s lone voice. And the whole is completely entrancing. There is a veneer of traditional folkiness, but it strays a long way from the American template of such. For one, the chord changes, while often starting as fairly standard, head of into realms that are just too weird and meandering. And Foster’s melodies avoid any circularity, roaming at will across the seemingly randomly shifting chordal bed. Meanwhile, Herrero’s playing is simply incredible. Foster’s guitar picks out relatively standard major and minor chords, then Herrero colours them with shifting, swirling, discordant semitone intervals which trace Spanish gypsy music back through the Balkans to their classical Indian roots. On ‘Second Sight’ and ‘Magenta’, it even sounds like he’s somehow getting an e-bow to function on his classical guitar. It’s not often this far into an instrument’s history you are presented with a ‘how the hell do they do that!?’ moment but, for me, this is one of those. The results are a strange mix of flamenco and American primitivism, further weirded up through extended technique, such as the intro to ‘Magenta’.
Then, Foster opens her mouth and the whole thing shifts yet again. At times, the relatively lo-fi recording quality and compression render her voice into a Billy Holiday-like muted trumpet wail. Her usual Joan Baez timbre is often apparent as well (another one of those strange things for me – I actively dislike Joan Baez’s music and voice, yet find Foster’s impossible not to love) and, then, this gently morphs into the operatic meanderings which bely her background as a trained singer and singing teacher. But rather than pure histrionics it is, again, subverted by the odd melodic non-patterns she follows, achieving genuine emotional resonance. For absolute proof of this, listen no further than the climax of mythologically tinged ‘The Garden Of Earthly Delights’. If that doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, then nothing will.
All the songs on No Lamps In The Morning are taken from Foster’s back catalogue, spanning about a decade of work, here rerecorded. That they fit together so seamlessly is testimony to the consistency of her vision. No Lamps In The Morning merely increases Foster’s standing as one of contemporary music’s most singular artists. Form and function are entwined to create a work which is as raw as it is beautiful, as full of surprises as it is lullingly captivating.