Album review: Juni Habel – Carvings

Words by Gareth Thompson

There’s a former school house just outside Rakkestad in rural southern Norway. With its front porch, climbing plants and ochre boarding it looks most welcoming. The songwriter Juni Habel now lives here and it’s where she recorded her second album, Carvings, in a bedroom, an old classroom and in the hallway. Released by those Yorkshire good eggs Basin Rock, Carvings shares a certain attic mustiness with the label’s Trevor Beales project. You can almost hear the school house’s eaves moaning in the background. There’s also a frisson of Nordic folk-horror in Habel’s songs, though Carvings is no work of elfin whimsy.

Habel’s vocals throughout dwell in a half-sleep zone, slightly fazed and cobwebby. There’s a risk of her messages and images thus being distorted, yet each song stamps out its own identity. Her voice has the chilling sincerity of Beth Gibbons’ with an added mountain twang. It urges you to stay watchful on opening cut ‘Rhythm Of The Tides’ where minor guitar chords rustle like withered leaves and Habel notes, ‘The red against the green/Is a call from the blossom that wants to be seen’. A poetic line, but when rendered by Habel it’s a reminder that folklore explores nature as something both sublime and shadowy.

The insistent finger-picking on ‘I Went Out And Sought For Your Name’ sounds like a predatory flapping of wings. Habel’s melodies glide on a restless and nervous wave, enticing us into her fears and desires. ‘We dressed up for winter/The cold will takes us and leave us crystallised’ she sings, her voice an unearthly beacon. Habel then goes treasure hunting for memories and experiences on ‘Little Twirl’ with a frisky guitar and playful tune. ‘I follow the roses’ she cries, gaily and unencumbered.

‘Valiant’ reaches out to her sister who died in a tragic car accident and uses the kind of plangent chords Bon Iver found in his log cabin phase. Habel’s voice sighs into half-formed syllables then gives up, as if words have become useless to express such a loss. ‘Your kisses still wet on my cheek’ she croons fondly at the end. Chilly violin phrases on ‘When We Awake’ flow into Habel’s carefree strums and murmurings, before the catchy folk-pop of ‘Chicory’ fairly floors us with its mini-yodel hookline. You’d never guess such a halcyon piece is actually about the grieving process. 

‘Drifting Pounds Of The Train’ then finds an Appalachian influence with its deep canyons of guitar and smoky violin traces. Finally, the frugal ‘I Carry You, My Love’ sees Habel making an altar to someone she’s lost, where every moment is etched with quiet angst. Here she can hold a phrase like ‘When my words won’t find you/I will find you in my tears’ without a hint of melodrama. 

In an overcrowded market, the sensitive and literate singer-songwriter needs more than just self-awareness. Carvings shows that clarity of delivery and narrative vision are crucial, along with variance in guitar rhythms and an ear for hooky melodies. Even better if you can add a sense of place where the uncanny and the marvellous exist. By tapping into these elements, Habel creates her own folk wisdom from light and darkness, her music infused with magic and dreams.

Carvings is released by Basin Rock Records on January 13th 2023.

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