the winter journey“The Winter Journey” has been such a difficult album to review. Why? Well, I can’t concentrate on typing, I keep falling into it and staying there, hypnotised. It’s just bloody wonderful. I’ve tried with pen and paper, same thing. Just dragged in. Fabulous, really.

Seven bottles, Barman. This is the second of Julitha’s solo albums, hopefully of many more. Her first LP, “The Lucky Girl” I responded immediately to and “The Winter Journey” does the same. Sure, if you’re expecting a wall of guitars, you might pause when you get a wall of … Julitha’s delicate voice. But then everything else kicks in: piano, organ, guitars, pedal steel, synthesizers, strings, brass section, and oh, yes, her all male choir (The Wall of Men) used to intensely powerful effect.

Imagine discovering a talent of the magnitude of, say, P.J. Harvey (or a female Nick Cave with Mick Harvey’s chutzpah) who remains unsigned by a major label. Impossible, I’m sure you think. The major labels would never pass up an opportunity to snaffle someone with that level of talent. Surely.

Wanna bet? Curiously enough, the comparison is more valid than you think; her previous band, Silver Ray, toured supporting Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and at her launch on February 19 at the Old Bar in Melbourne, Mick Harvey will be in her backing band.

“Nothing/ between me and death…” that’s how “Bonfire” begins, just Julitha … by the time the rest of the instruments kick in (with quite a bang):

All the books I’ve never read/ All the memories I’ll never need .. I’m tired of all and everything and I’m getting ready to die

I think that’s about as confrontational as I’ve ever seen it. Now, just reading that, I spose you’d be thinking this would be grey, dismal, slow stuff (rather like that Cave chap at his most turgid, or that Morrissey bloke on a torn tutu day). But no. In the entire album, we’re teased, drawn along, sweeties dropped for James Woods in a popular cartoon, and before we know it we’re at the end and hitting repeat. See, Julitha sings the most intense lyrics, often in a most gorgeous voice, and we find we’re just … lost in music, caught in the trap, there’s no turning back (if you know the reference).

I’m gonna build a bonfire/ of everything I know … I’m not gonna need it/ when I go

If that’s not full-on (and that’s just the lyrics), I don’t know what it. Of course, it doesn’t feel full-on, and that’s the key. These beautiful songs are loaded guns. Do a waltz or sit and sing along, dragging friends and neighbours in …or sit and weep… there’s a lot going on here.

There’s so much clever technique in “The Winter Journey”, and it’s so effortless, so natural that you don’t notice; the music quivers with emotion, and you just know the musicians had a blast responding to Julitha’s voice. Just this one opening song, you want to hear over and over. The emotion is so damn big, understated for the most part but then rocketing up… all delivered in this honey-silk voice… on the one hand it’s quite devastating, on the other it’s pure sophisticated pop …

And then we’re dancing to “Like a Jai”’, a modern vibed-up funk piece which isn’t funk but may as well be… just takes you off on an internal journey while bouncing around the room.

It’s sure taking such a long time/ to learn to stay away from love/ look up at the mountains up ahead/ look at the skies above/ like a jail, like a jail

Julitha’s press release describes “Winter Journey” as “a suite of songs inspired by impotence and sadness in the post-romance of our dystopian present”, which is about right, but half the time throughout we’re dancing, constantly turning it all up and having the cops arrive … yet the songs also hint at other things, the broader passage of time and those we love and want and can’t have and shouldn’t, either.

The third song, “Woman Walks Her Cat”, was written by Norm Fagg (er, no, me neither)… there’s a distinct air of the Brels, Gainsbourgs, or hell, the Marc Almonds and Scott Walkers about this one; via 6ts pop girl groups … these aren’t comparisons I chuck about lightly. Julitha ain’t Brel, of course, nor the rest … but by God she’s in the neighbourhood, let me tell you. Take ‘the memories of his lies/ sit in the corner of her eyes/ and the only time she cries/ is when she can’t remember the colour of his eyes’… it’s timeless, frankly.

The majestic, slow-swing of “Memento” shimmies across the polished cafe floor… right into “Something’s Gotta Give”.

Who do I pray to, now that everything is gone/ I hear the drums now/ still leading me on … something bad is happening, happening soon

We soar but we’re down near the ground. This is lush, rich food… sweet, strong and musky… delicate and fragrant.

And then there’s the distinctly modern “Zeehan” (“If the Coke machine is broken/ and the church is stripped bare …”), another swinging, finger-popping, swaggerin’ grief-stricken lament. It’s as if Julitha’s saying she’s survived all this, and she’s rediscovering how beautiful life is. Her voice soars and darts by turns, like a bird on the updrafts … “love comes to an end too soon”.

See what I mean? Grim and miserable? No, uplifting - it’s about choice, and knowing what you’re doing as best you can, hurtling along on the journey… but knowing the lines have been crossed…

"Big Brass Bell" is the closest we get to a rocker via a French bistro - and it’s the closest you could compare her with Nick Cave. But Julitha offers a broad palette … "watch me now as I put up my shield/ watch me now as I put down my beer"… and there’s wit bipping and bopping amongst her stories…

“There is No Turning Back” is the last song… It’s achingly gorgeous, compelling. If you haven’t got the measure of Julitha Ryan yet, there’s only one thing to do. Listen to her. Get both her albums.

Winter journeys can be made on summer days/ Crossing the dark meridian you lose a day/ You lose your way/ There is no turning back…

Like all the best albums, we can either take “Winter’s Journey” as a hugely personal statement (which I believe it is) but Julitha has also constructed a series of simple parables for our own lives, troubles and struggles. Every song belongs on a mixtape or eight. Every song you want to hear over and over.

If Julitha Ryan was playing in my city I’d be doing my utmost to see every gig: talent of this calibre is rare enough, to be able to actually see her in fairly intimate surrounds (instead of the ghastliness of the sticky concrete stadia which the Caves of the world inhabit, or the kind of theatres where you have to hurry to the front in order to actually see the performer). She’ll be touring in Europe again in March, so you’ll have to get in quick to catch her.

I can’t pretend I’m familiar with all the musicians on the album (recorded at Diabolicus Studio in Milan and Soundpark, Melbourne) but I recognise Maßimiliano Gallo (violin) and Henry Hugo (guitar) and Brett Poliness. Not that the names matter exactly, because like I say, “The Winter Journey” grabs you, holds you and keeps you.

What else? In between recording, touring her songs through Europe and finishing this lp, she’s also toured with Hugo Race and recorded cello for the soundtrack of George Gittoes’ film ‘Snow Monkey’ - that’s just the stuff I know of. Speaking of soundtracks, this is where her songs belong, on soundtracks. You’ll know what I mean once you hear them.

A few months ago I wrote, of Julitha’s album “The Lucky Girl” - “if there was any justice in the world she’d be making a triumphant return to Australia after touring the stadia of the USA and Europe, coming home to pack the Rod Laver Arena four nights in a row. If this were only 25 years ago, the industry would be elbowing each other with intent to get ahold of a moneymaking talent on a par with Kate Bush.”

Not only do I hear no reason to change my opinion with “The Winter Journey”, I can only reiterate the sentiment.

Julitha’s soundcloud site should have "The Winter Journey" up soon: if you’ve not heard ‘The Lucky Girl’ yet, go here

Her next gig is on Friday, January 27 at Tago Mago, in Melbourne; “The Winter Journey”’s official launch will be at the Old Bar, also in Melbourne, on Sunday February 19, and it will be available on February 20 through her Bandcamp site on both CD and download. 

Alternately, contact her on her Facebook page and see if you can pre-order. I’m told she’s considering a couple of bonus tracks …

Like the press release says, there will be dancing.