Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Rachel Harrington - Celilo Falls


You could be forgiven for thinking that Celilo Falls must be somewhere in the American South. In fact, the falls were once to be found on the Columbia River, dividing the states of Oregon and Washington. In the early 1950s, the Dulles Dam was built on the river, and now those falls are gone. Progress? Perhaps, but something precious was lost, and metaphorically, Rachel Harrington wants us to hear what it was. The songs on this album are Harrington’s idea of what country music was about when it was still country. You will swear that these are traditional tunes, but they are not. Yes, Harrington performs Pretty Saro here, but she has given the song completely new lyrics. Spokane is a cover, but that one was written in Washington state in 2005. The rest of the songs are Harrington originals, but their evocation of the folk music of the American South is uncanny.

Bury Me Close is like a microcosm of how this album works. The song starts with Harrington singing and accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. Her voice is a fine folky alto with a Southern twang in the accent, and just a hint of smoke in the texture of her voice. Her singing is understated, but the emotions of each song come through loud and clear. On guitar, she picks her notes rather than strumming, and she gives herself solid support. You could say that this is all the song needs. But the lyric is very brief, and halfway through the song, Harrington has sung all of the words. At this point, a fiddle enters, and is soon joined by the rest of the band. From there, she sings the entire song again with the full band. So, in the space of one song, there are two arrangements, and each one is just what the song needs. Pretty Saro is done here as an a capella number, and it proves that Harrington can carry a song beautifully with just her voice. But there is a band on this album, and Harrington can add dobro or banjo, fiddle or pedal steel, mandolin, and/or stand-up bass. Here in My Bed has slide guitar, and You Don’t Know has a gentle harmonica part that is a wonder of delicacy. So Harrington sometimes uses all of the band, sometimes only some of it, and sometimes it’s just her and her guitar. In each case, Harrington makes the perfect choice of what the song needs.

Most of the lyrics sound traditional as well. He Started Building My Mansion in Heaven Today expresses a personal relationship between a Christian believer and his savior; the song was inspired by a remark that Harrington’s grandfather made. House of Cards concerns a card game turned sour, and is a wonderfully spare piece of story telling. The lyrics for Pretty Saro are new, as I mentioned, but they sound like a lost version. Only the lyrics of Goodbye Amsterdam sound new to me; here, Harrington describes traveling to old haunts throughout Europe without the company of a former romantic partner, and having to explain where that person is. It’s a beautifully rendered song, full of heartache, but it is the only one that does not sound like an old song. You’ll Do sounds traditional, but it belongs to a different tradition than the rest. This one sounds like a sultry old blues number. Harrington needs to sing this one a little differently than the rest, and she pulls it off beautifully. The album has a number of sad slow songs; You’ll Do provides a little breather, and it helps the whole album work better.

Next time out, maybe Harrington will start from the territory of Goodbye Amsterdam, and do an entire album of more modern-sounding songs. Or maybe she will start from You’ll Do, and do an entire album of jazz and blues flavored numbers. Or maybe she will continue to mine the rich vein of traditional-sounding songs heard here. Whatever she chooses, Celilo Falls proves that the results will be well worth hearing.

Rachel Harrington: You‘ll Do

Rachel Harrington: Bury Me Close