Rough River: The Leaving

- America tries hard to ruin my enjoyment of country music, producing an endless stream of finely manicured cowboys who don’t look like they’ve ever been beyond city limits and dusty ol’ songs that can’t be sung without the aid of autotune. On the flipside, however, there are some pretty fine country songstresses out there: tough women who sing fiery alt-country anthems or sparse acoustic ballads, fit to break my heart.

Overseas alternative heroines like Angel Olsen or Alela Diane are increasingly joined by a fine roster of local talents. You need look no further than the unexpectedly rising star of Julia Jacklin, the fey gothic country of trans-Tasman songstress Aldous Harding or the Patsy Cline sweetness of The Grand Magoozi. I’m going to add another name to my list: Rough River. The performing name of Melbourne’s Kate Skinner.

Kate really deftly splits the difference between very rootsy country, folk revival and Appalachian roots music. It’s a stylistic interweaving that the aforementioned Alela Diane has previously mined to great effect and sometimes the similarities are uncanny. I get it most in the strong, vibrato free vocals with their their rootsy ornaments. It’s the sort of thing that reminds you of the mountains of Kentucky, raw natural beauty and southern gothic horror.

Lyrically, however, the songs seem, to some degree, Skinner’s own. There’s a certain duplicitousness, Skinner is deliberately vague in her characterisation: the themes of sadness, longing and loss could at the same time belong to a single mother suffering in a log hut in remote West Virginia, or they could be Skinner’s stories. There’s plenty of mystery, often relating to some kind of longstanding hurt. Take single, True Wild, which has an alternative title, rather chillingly: What You Did. It circles around the point before jabbing an accusing finger “Oh but baby I wish you had never done what you did.” The listener doesn’t know the crime, but it’s enough that the guilty party does. “...and all the love that you gave, is now pouring straight back, into the grave.

Temptation, danger, unrequited love, pain and the bonding of these to life’s harsh realities are the recurrent themes of The Leaving. Whether it’s passionately burning with thunderous, reverb-laden guitar, or carefully, painfully picked out on an acoustic, the song in some important senses, remains the same. The Leaving is actually the perfect name for this record. It captures that strange, liminal feeling: between lust and consummation, captivity and emancipation, between love and loss, life and death. It’s depicted ingeniously in one of the best album covers I’ve seen in a good long time. The image of a woman floating in water is flipped upside down and drenched in dark-green shadow. Her face is lost, nudging through the surface. At the same time the image is deathly and transcendent, full of sadness but also wonder. Like the music, kind of impressive.

Rough River’s new record is as vibrant and lively as it is dark and mournful: there’s a lot in here and it forms a stylish whole. If there were any concerns that it might sit a little close to some of its influences, the elegance with which Kate Skinner acquits herself wipe those out. This is the work of one of Australia’s finest country artists.

- Chris Cobcroft. 

Album Details

Album Title: The Leaving
Artist: Rough River
Record Label: (Dusky Tracks)