To call this album downbeat could sound almost dismissive, but it's certainly an album that draws on pessimism. It's a largely reflective collection that wears the bruises of life with a weary pride. T Bone Burnett has done a wonderful job on the production, creating a foreboding aura, largely driven by an upfront bass that will certainly test the lower reaches of your listening apparatus. There are subtle country overtones courtesy of the occasional fiddle, and some delicious steel guitar licks, but this isn't a country album. Perhaps the album's crowning glory is the marriage of Jakob's forthright vocals with absolutely sublime harmonies from Neko Case and Kelly Hogan, lending a warmth to the restless musing. The starkly pensive 'Down On Our Own Shield' employs these harmonies to stunning effect, sounding like an intimate conversation, with the two voices locked in an eternal embrace; it works equally well creating the effortless cool of 'Truth For Truth', bringing a spirited ebullience to the punchy chorus. There's a reluctant hope to be found on Woman & Country too, and repeated listens will enable you tease out these subtleties.
This is possibly becoming irritating by now; I'm like a one-man Krista Detor appreciation society. I'm trying not to be blinkered to any flaws that I should perhaps notice, but I am truly captivated by the artistry of this lady. Krista's writing exudes a warmth and compassion that is only intensified by her classy, understated delivery. This album is arranged in five suites, each suite binding three songs with a delicate thread. I didn't fully appreciate the subtleties that bind these themes on my earlier listens, nor on my initial review of Chocolate Paper Suites, so here goes: 'Oranges Fall Like Rain' reflects on life's reckless pursuit of material false gods; any song from 'Night Light' deserves immediate addition to the Great American Songbook, all soaked in a moonlit ambience, and shimmering with a class that harks back to those golden age jazz standards; the darker sides of relationships are explored on 'Madness Of Love', mulling over an inevitable denouement, the unbearable emotional strain, and the utter hopelessness of unrequited love; 'By Any Other Name' casts an eye over the lost chances of life and the apathy with which we greet, or fail to recognise, moments of serendipity. Finally, billed as a bonus suite, there are three songs from The Darwin Songhouse project, and most notably Krista's 'Clock of the World', which is quite possibly the finest song to emerge from this project. What I'm describing here is what this album has come to mean to me over the course of this year; it might not be quite what Krista had in mind. But that's what Krista's songs tend to do: they seep in to your consciousness and become a part of your life, like old friends that you can call on for succour and emotional nourishment. (read my original review here)
It would have been so easy for this recording to become a complete disaster, playing to every folk-rock cliche going, and its a true testament to all involved that the resulting album manages to pay a tasteful homage to both the folk tradition and the very best of the folk-rock makeover from the 1960s and 1970s. It actually goes further than this though, for The View From A Hill is not merely a tribute album, but a rich exploration of our folk traditions, presented through varied vocal styles and sounding as fresh and contemporary as anything that the English folk scene has presented in recent years, despite hanging on proudly to defiantly retro folk-rock roots. It's almost like the folk music equivalent of the second generation Mini: it holds fast to the charm that attracted us to the originals, yet wraps it up in an imaginative new coat. This is music with true spirit, and also some of the finest, most understated folk vocalists that we have in Britain. (read my original review here)
Jason Steel is also a member of The Owl Service, and Fire Begot Ash marks a further excellent release from the independent label, Rif Mountain, a label that seems to be well and truly plugged in to the tremendously rich seam of acoustic music that the UK has to offer right now. Fire Begot Ash revels in its simplicity, showcasing Steel's dextrous picking of banjo and guitar, playing with a precision that sacrifices none of the soul or rapport imparted by his uncomplicated vocals. It's an intimate affair, very much a personal performance, and one that instantly finds a home in your affections. (read my original review here)
Mary Chapin Carpenter: The Age Of Miracles
Mary Chapin Carpenter is an artist who just gets better with age. Like the timbre of her voice, her writing has grown in warmth and intimacy, and this album is certain to endure as a very personal, timeless record of memories and sentiments. Mary's vocals are an exemplary lesson in understated effortlessness throughout, with the nuance of hushed expression portraying more than any unnecessary volume or vocal histrionics ever could. Her lyrics don't lose any of their edge though: '4 June 1989' recalls the Tiananmen Square protests from the viewpoint of a young soldier, and the uplifting potency of the title track urges you not to yield the pursuit of dreams and to seek out each glimmer of hope that can be found in the most courageous, individual acts of humanity. One is tempted to think that a quiet revolution may well be truly alive and fighting in Mary's world right now. There's a telling self-confidence about her lyrics too, without ever coming across as egotistical, that suggests a writer who is comfortable in her own shell, very much at ease with her 'need for solitude', and who finds continued inspiration when placing herself at some distance from the rest of the world, and even her own life. This might well be her best collection of songs yet.