At the end of the journey in the time machine of my imagination, it is 1971, and the new album by Sarah and Johnny is out. On the cover, Sarah stands on a tree stump, head tilted skyward slightly. She wears an India-print dress and a wreath of daisies in her hair. She holds a sunflower in her hands, the blossom over her heart. Johnny kneels on the ground at her feet, off to one side so we can partly see his face. His expression is worshipful. He wears a dashiki and a headband with a matching pattern. Blue jeans with bell bottoms, and they both wear sandals. The whole thing is photographed through a filter that makes the scene look dreamlike.
Forty years later, the actual album, by Sarah Lee Guthrie and husband Johnny Irion, is out, and it‘s called Bright Examples. The cover has some of that early seventies vibe, but it’s not over the top at all. Likewise the music. For the most part, this music could have been made in 1971. Most songs feature drums, bass, acoustic guitar and piano. An organ joins in often. Many songs have pedal steel parts that could have been played by Sneaky Pete back when. And there is often a chorus of background vocals. On top of this, Guthrie’s alto and Irion’s tenor intertwine and blend beautifully, giving the whole thing a wonderful creamy texture. Now here’s the funny thing. This is the kind of album I would have hated in 1971. Bright Examples is a pop-folk-soul album, and I never cared for this kind of sound. To do something like this now, most artists would play it as camp, or treat the material ironically. Guthrie and Irion play it straight. They believe in this material, and the love they express is real. It works also because they approach it with a light touch. Elsewhere, they have shown that they can each sing in full voice, and express all the emotion they could ever need. But that would have been deadly here. Instead, the vocals float, and give the album a delicate quality that saves the day.
I mentioned that Guthrie and Irion are married. Usually, I wouldn’t mention the artists’ marital status, but I find it relevant here. These are songs of a couple who have become comfortable with each other, but who still remember how in love they are. It’s a magical time in a marriage. There are still doubts sometimes, but there is also the assurance of having made the right choice. This comes through most clearly for me in the song Company I’m Keepin. This love still has an innocent quality that comes through even in a song about fending off a rival. That happens in Target on Your Heart, and the song feels like a teen romance song in all the best ways. In Dupont Circle, Guthrie and Irion are able to present a romanticized view of a musical couple who are busking and playing coffeehouses when they can; this one really hits home for me. Butterflies has the most strikingly beautiful arrangement on the album, with an accordion part that works beautifully. This one is about making a path together through life, and it is completely convincing.
And so it goes throughout the album. The songs all concern love in one way or another, and they are all convincing, which is the most important thing that has to happen with this kind of material. Musically, that innocent 70s vibe serves the material well, and resonates with me more than I would have believed possible. There is only one musical misstep. Dupont Circle opens with the sound of obviously electronic percussion, and it breaks the musical mood somewhat. They could have used a bass drum and a tambourine instead, and it would have preserved the mood better. But that is a small complaint about a very fine album. This one took me by surprise. Let yourself be surprised as well.
Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion: Butterflies
Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion: The Company I‘m Keepin