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Reflection (Checked/Kobalt)

Yes, this came out several months ago. This isn’t breaking news, nor will it challenge a new “Christian” Kanye West album for attention as a Halloween horror. So if you’re on board already, or have a narrow window for interest/attention, you can probably move on.

But having belatedly come to it while in her hometown of Tamworth last week – yeah, yeah, I know – it just felt worth noting its presence and, more importantly, recognising its worth. And its oddness.

The oddest thing about Ashleigh Dallas, who last year won the Golden Guitar for Best Traditional Country, is how not-odd her records are.

How, like the equally good Felicity Urquhart’s albums, they don’t look for an old-time atmosphere of roominess and string bands, or creaky-boned bush balladry, or full-bodied countrypolitan lush, but work in what is undoubtedly contemporary country.

That is clean instrumentation and sounds; a sense that the vocals are central but not seeking dominance; those vocals also leaning in with warmth and an ease that can suggest casual and conversational when in fact they are being sung with control and skill; and choruses you can sing pretty much before the song finishes its first run in your company.

How, in other words, they are not “traditional” in any real sense, but how that that designation says something about how the industry now views anything which is not the high gloss/all action country pop which has ruled the American and Australian playlists, screens and charts for some years.

Dallas’ songs feel light on their feet, at either end of the emotional spectrum. Vacation, for example, takes a neat little riff at the start as the cue for exactly the kind of release of someone taking a run out of the office or school door with weeks of nothing but pleasure ahead. In The Water breathes gently in its verses and then when the chorus arrives avoids the obvious kick-up-to-the-hook bang for something so easy on the nerves that you can almost feel those “toes in the water”.

Harriet’s Lullaby, a paean to her new daughter – the kind of fresh-out-of-the-packet new parent job which could feel sweet but treacly - allows the room around the finger-picked guitar to convey the joy while her voice does the sentiment. And Catherine Hill, a ballad of missed time and memories, brings the fiddle and mandolin to the fore while the electric guitar works as a decorative background sketch.

Everything’s just so well balanced, and so well done. Maybe that is the traditional bit.

Whatever name you give it, Dallas has made her best work since leaving the grip/embrace of a label - 2017’s Lighthouse a major statement. The trade-off is a diminished financial push behind her and a greater chance that because it’s not like the other kids in the playground it will be overlooked.

But as I found last week, there’s always time to come to it, and enjoy.

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