Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Carrie Newcomer - Before & After


There is an instrument which, in English, is called a talking drum. Among the Yoruba people of Nigeria, it is believed that a master player can give a talking drum an actual voice. On Before & After, Carrie Newcomer gets a similar effect in places from the entire band. It’s a remarkable sound. It is a voice and a pulse combined, and it is what a heart would sound like if it could talk.

Newcomer sings in a warm alto, mostly quiet or quieter. She is able to get the emotion of her work across without having to raise her voice, and she is a master of subtlety. She can be sweet or tender, but she can also be strong in her beliefs, but never strident.

Her band supports her with an appropriately light touch, but they vary the textures just enough to make this an interesting listen. There is wonderful string work, from violin, viola, or cello, but never all of them at once. There is a basic band of drums or percussion, bass, keyboards, and acoustic guitar, with some electric guitar added in for color. But the sound is mostly acoustic. Newcomer doesn’t usually need much help here on vocals, but she sometimes likes to blend with another singer on the chorus. So Krista Detor, Michael White, coproducer David Weber, and Mary Chapin Carpenter each take a turn. And she gets a gospel effect on one song, and something that reminds me of Paul Simon’s Graceland album on another, by using chorused background vocals.

Newcomer does a good job of presenting varied subjects in the songs here. There is one love song, of course, and it’s a good one. Hush presents love at the point where one person instinctively knows what the other needs. The song is wonderfully tender. There are a variety of songs about finding your way through life. Before and After is about coming to terms with a pivot point in your life, a time when something happens that changes you ever after. But Newcomer is interested here in what happens once you have had time to digest the experience. There are other times when you have an experience that seems significant, but you can never quite put your finger on why; I Do Not Know Its Name details a string of these, and they seem to add up. This is one of those moments I mentioned earlier, where the band becomes one percussive voice. Coy Dogs are half dog and half coyote; Newcomer uses their split nature as a metaphor for times when our wild and tame urges are in conflict. The musical setting makes this tension palpable. Then there is the sweet nostalgic feel of I Wish I May, I Wish I Might, which is about state fairs in Indiana. And the album concludes with a “bonus track”, A Crash of Rhinoceros. Newcomer should include this one if she is ever asked to do a children’s concert, and I mean that as a compliment. This one has a wonderful sense of whimsy, as it tells of Adam and (mostly) Eve naming the animals.

Special mention should be made of the song Do No Harm. Back in 2007, Newcomer was involved in a project called Wilderness Plots. The short stories of Scott Russell Sanders were adapted into a stage work which featured new songs by Newcomer and several other Indiana-based songwriters. The stories concerned the settling of the Ohio Valley. The Wilderness Plots project resulted in a stage show, an album of the songs, and there was even a PBS version shown on local TV stations. For Do No Harm, Newcomer has returned to the stories of Scott Russell Sanders, to tell a harrowing tale of the arrival of Quakers in the region. This seems to me to be the most heartfelt song on the album.

So Before & After is a set of beautifully arranged and realized songs. Newcomer explores an impressive range of subjects, and nails it every time. This one comes out on February 23. Make sure to grab it when it does.

Carrie Newcomer: I Do Not Know Its Name

Carrie Newcomer: Coy Dogs