Astraluna is no stranger to stage and studio for solo artist Jennifer Birch has grounded experience in the music business having supplied backing vocals, rhythm guitar and keyboard at stadia and festivals across the world for fellow musician of the vibrant Leeds scene Corinne Bailey Rae. No wonder then that the first thing that struck me about “The Pass Of Storms”, her debut solo album, is its modern, accomplished and professional stance. One instantly perceives here be talent.
The individualistic sound that Astraluna creates is formed through harmonious vocals, looped and looped again to create a cathedral of sound on which to place her pitch perfect melody. Her voice is gracefully pure, strong with a gentle edge, the studio mix picking out the tunes perfectly from the potent choral accompaniment. Similarly, the ukulele timbre adds to this panorama of sound with a bright accentuated yet somehow warm enveloping thickness. A little bass and percussion add some colour and tonal variance but this reflecting core drives each of the ten elegantly recorded tracks.
The songs themselves are certainly at home in the zeitgeist of modern music, another artist breaking down the ukulele walls to present their talents beyond our happy four stringed clan. This said, the opening track, Rise and Fall, has a enchanting ukulele riff that would be home on any present-day Hawaiian radio station.
Play With Fire is a wonderful exponent of music built around a loop station in the mould of KT Tunstall, a driving harmony pushing along the bouncing verse perfectly and is truly the hook of the song. In contrast Don’t Hurry is a simpler affair but no less compelling with those sirenic harmonies and even such a stripped down style seizes one’s attention completely. I’m also very taken by the beginning of Soothe Me in particular. Here we have some ghostly “ooo’s” closely followed by a single pizzicato note ukulele rhythm beneath a tenacious lead vocal culminating in a simple chord, the title sung so cleanly, all notes reverberating into the cosmos. It’s quite astonishing that such a change in gusto and feel with a forceful and mesmerizing bite can come from such an elementary musical palette. A champion indeed for the power of minimalism.
“The Pass Of Storms” is one of the most contemporary sounding and polished ukulele releases I have come across to date. The layered celestial vocals atop a chiming ukulele sound, both sweetly wrapped in resonant reverb, create a haunting atmospheric and airy chamber to house Astraluna’s delicate songwriting gift.
This review first appeared in the fabulous UKE Magazine Issue 8 (December 2016).