“Silence Surrounds Me” – Jo Hook and Geoffrey Richardson

4 stars (out of 5)

2

Silence Surrounds Me CoverThere’s quite a story behind Canterbury-based Jo Hook’s third album, “Silence Surrounds Me”, and it’s a story of talent, hard work, and optimism triumphing over adversity.  Jo’s first album, “Inside Out”, was released in 2000 and her second, “Settle Down”, in 2005.  Following the release of “Settle Down”, Jo was forced to take a sabbatical to deal with kidney failure, resulting in the donation of a kidney from a friend.  Following her recovery, Jo started writing again with, not surprisingly, a different perspective.  Another period of illness followed, leading to paralysis, before Jo finally approached multi-instrumentalist Geoffrey Richardson, also based in Canterbury, to record this album.  The partnership worked so well that it quickly became a joint project, Jo’s songwriting and singing being complemented by Geoffrey’s playing and arrangements.  The recording line-up was completed by Paul Townsend (drums) and Richie Bates (bass).

Jo’s style of songwriting is intensely personal and, unsurprisingly, there are many references to her recent experiences, although the minimally-arranged “Voice” cautions against identifying the performance too closely with the performer.  The overall message of “Silence Surrounds Me” is positive and hopeful, although “Smile” and “Wind Me Up” both have darker sides and deeper layers of meaning.  “Silence Surrounds Me” doesn’t reveal all of its secrets immediately; in the seemingly whimsical “Alexander Beetle”, for example, the title character is also a metaphorical representation of our choices of friends and lovers.  Apart from the relatively straightforward melancholy of “Mrs Zippy” and the love song “Like What You Like” (a lovely vocal duet with Geoffrey Richardson), most of the songs need a little bit of effort from the listener, but it’s an effort that’s generously rewarded.

The opening two songs effectively set the musical scene for the album.  “Eight” is topped and tailed by unhurried acoustic guitar interplay (with a bit of cello) with an uptempo middle third featuring the full band, and “Living is Easy” is driven along by a string section to a big finish with loads of backing vocals.  Lyrically, both of these songs seem to be inspired by the recent events in Jo’s life and the lyrics of “Living is Easy” provide the title for the album.  “Arial Ten” is another clever piece of wordplay, the title likening the ubiquitous font (or type) to the vanilla option, the average non-entity and the comparison that every artist dreads.  “Oldest Silence” is another intensely personal song built around revisiting an old, but not extinguished, relationship while “Inside Out” is an acoustic reworking of the title track from Jo’s debut album which works much better with traditional instruments than the beats and samples of the original arrangement.  “20,000 Bottles” closes the album in rollicking, upbeat folk style with fiddles, whistles and lots of layered harmonies.

Jo Hook has put together a very strong and varied set of deceptively simple songs on personal themes while also slipping in some social comment as well.  Her voice has returned as clear and true as ever with the occasional fractured edge to add feeling to the more personal songs.  The arrangements and playing of Geoffrey Richardson complement the songs perfectly, creating an album that amply rewards repeated listening.  It’s great to have you back, Jo.

“Silence Surrounds Me” is out now.  It’s available to download from iTunes and Amazon and to stream from Spotify.