Chris While & Julie Matthews,
(Fat Cat Records, 1998)

When Chris While and Julie Matthews made their farewell appearance with the Albion Band at Cropedy '97, it wasn't their farewell from performing together. This duo, whose songs have been covered by numerous artists (Mary Black took Matthews' "Thorn Upon the Rose" to the Irish top ten), released Piecework shortly after. Featuring eleven songs (most written solo, a couple written together), the two women harmonize well together, with the song's author generally taking lead vocals.

The opening track, "Class Reunion," sets a light, lively pace as Matthews recounts the story of two women resolving their teenage hurt. The "la la" chorus, its melody reminiscent of an elementary school playground song, foreshadows the song's happy ending. However, with "I'm not the only one" sung in the final chorus' background, you know that Matthews is serious about her subject.

Another song with an equally catchy melody includes Matthews' "This is Your Instant Karma." Its upbeat, slightly countryish feel belies its cynical message that one day the song's recipient will have to pay for wrongs done.

The chorus in While's "Piecework," the title track, hearkens back to traditional work songs, with a twinge of blues/rock added. "Factory Floor" (by While) and "Seven Years of Rust" (by Matthews) also are work-related songs. The poignant "Seven Years of Rust" points out the despair of modern-day layoffs: "The men in suits changed my plans... / They left me six years short of my pension." Fairport Convention's Chris Leslie, playing violin and bouzouki, adds to the song's bittersweet mood.

Both women accompany themselves instrumentally, with While on guitar, and Matthews on guitar, organ, bouzouki, and piano. "Hard to be the Way," in particular, allows While to show off her guitar skills. Fairport's Leslie also contributes violin to "White Water Running," a Native-American themed song that I'm thankful to say does not sound at all "new age" and instead features a rather melodic chorus. Leslie also plays violin on a song that is dedicated to him, Matthews' "From This Wood." Simon Nicol from Fairport lends his guitar and backing vocals to the slow and poignant "Starting All Over Again."

Although "From This Wood" may be dedicated to Chris Leslie, he claimed in the '99 Cropedy Program that "Winter Shines" was one of his favorite songs. While's slow, pensive song about the seasons of life concerns an old woman who realizes that the season shining upon her now, winter, is her last.

While and Matthews represent the epitome of singer-songwriters. Their songs are thought-provoking with arrangements that allow them to show off their husky voices and fine harmonies. I am disappointed that Piecework currently is available in the U.S. only as an import and that their upcoming release, due out in autumn of 1999, most likely also only will be available that way for the time being.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]