Review: Graham Lambkin & Áine O’Dwyer – Green Ways (Erstwhile, Nov 27)

Disclaimer: Please listen to Green Ways before you read this, if at all possible. In my opinion, the album is best experienced when one forms one’s own interpretations of the sounds. But I can’t tell you what to do.

I’m fairly certain I will remember the first time I heard Green Ways for the rest of my life. When a double CD by two of my favorite artists on my favorite label was announced, it’s not surprising that it was one of my most anticipated releases this year. I was careful not to try to predict what the music would sound like; Graham Lambkin and Áine O’Dwyer are both artists who subvert my expectations almost as a rule, always giving me what I didn’t know I wanted. But even if you don’t have expectations, Green Ways will surprise you. Crafted with care, reverence, and an inordinate amount of love, it is one of the few albums that I can call a truly unique experience. As Lambkin says in his fascinating interview with The Quietus, Green Ways was originally envisioned as a sound map of Ireland, O’Dwyer’s home country. Though they intended to “[go] over to Ireland and record in these places that meant something to her,” the album ended up as much more, not only imbued with the sentiment and memories attached to the recordings but also with new emotions created with abstract performances and the “filíocht of rural and urban acoustic environments.”

The opening suite of tracks, “One and One Is One” through “…Is Three,” are immediately mysterious. “…Is One” begins with a group vocal performance, beginning as a collectively produced drone that transforms into something much more rhythmic. It and almost all the other tracks create a palpably physical sound space; you can feel the vibrations of the creaking wood floor, the syrupy acoustics of the vocalizations, that overwhelming but pleasant warmth from sitting amidst a large group of people. The way in which Green Ways puts emphasis on the concept and feeling of ‘place’ is truly incredible, from trapping the listener atop the surface tension of the water in “One and One Is Two” to immersing them in the movement of hiking and kneeling to collect mushrooms and other herbs. “Greenways” is one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard, swirling a gorgeous, natural drone around the stereo recorder…but I could also say the same thing about “Expatriate Union,” which takes that powerful sensation of being in a crowd even further, or “The £500 Whistle,” a mundane but sublime walk through what sounds like a busy town square, or “Down by the Sally Gardens,” when a distorted dog bark rips through comfortable rural domesticity, or… you get the idea.

But ‘place’ is not only conveyed physically; the voices and actions of actual people are important too. Intimate singing of traditional folk songs placed throughout the album, as well as snippets of conversations and the soft cacophony of crowds. These yield amazing moments as well, like on “Metallurgy,” when O’Dwyer asks their companion how long he thinks “that boulder” has been there, to which he nonchalantly, “about 6000 years.” It’s a rare verbal communication of the themes and ideas that Green Ways explores so effectively without any words at all, conveying that deep undercurrent of age and history that runs under the Emerald Isle, a place that simultaneously exists in the present and so far in the past.

I could go on; really, I could. Green Ways is an indescribably rich album, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully enumerate all the things it makes me feel. I’m just so grateful that it exists.