I’ll start by saying that Threshold is Carolann Solebello’s first solo album since she left Red Molly. But being part of a group that does a lot of sweet harmonies is different from being a solo artist. And writing for a group is also different from writing for yourself. Threshold shows how Carolann Solebello creates and performs an album’s worth of material just for herself. The rich and sweet alto voice is still here, of course. But there are times here when Solebello cuts loose and belts out a few notes. This is all the more affective because Solebello does it sparingly. And having an entire album of Sollebello originals, plus two well chosen covers of traditional tunes, puts her writing in a context that was not possible in a group. I will always treasure the albums Solebello made with Red Molly, but Threshold is a treat of a different sort.
In a sense, Threshold can be heard as a single song. It starts as a folk-rock tune, with both electric and acoustic guitars prominent in the mix, backed by drums and bass. Then there is a quiet midsection, where the electric guitar and drums, and soon even the bass, drop out, and a fiddle and mandolin show up. The folk-rock arrangement comes back, although not as forcefully. Finally, there is a gospel coda, with just acoustic guitar and chorused background vocals. Put this way, it sounds very schematic and deliberate, but that’s not how it sounds. The lyrics are a set of stories, organized around the themes of freedom and home. In Solebello’s eyes, these concepts are opposites, and the tension between them is what really drives the album. There is an emotional ebb and flow here, mirrored by the changing tone of the music.
One extreme of this emotional dynamic comes out in the song Empty House. Solebello makes it clear that a house is a mere shell. A home is about being surrounded by loved ones. This motif reappears later in Tea Without Sympathy. The urge for going, and for freedom, is represented most clearly here by the traditional Black Jack Davey, where the protagonist gives up her family and home to travel with a gypsy. But not all of Solebello’s narrators can make this choice so easily. In Paint My Wagon, the narrator wants her freedom, but she wants her husband to go with her. Alice, in the song of the same name, ties herself to a house and family, but keeps the spirit of freedom alive in her heart for when it will be needed again. Alice is a wonderfully realized heroine, probably my favorite on an album full of fascinating women. Somewhere in the middle emotionally are the songs A Song I Can’t Remember and Someone Else’s Dream. These are songs where Solebello’s heroines sing in the first person, and they feel that they have arrived in a place where they do not belong.
Finally, that gospel coda I mentioned is Wash Me Clean, which must close the album. The conflict expressed in all that has come before is not completely resolved, but Wash Me Clean feels to me like a secular prayer to help the heroine accept her situation, and the consequences of her choices. The song powerfully binds the album together, and leaves the listener with a feeling of hope. This is an album that is best heard as a whole, in the order the songs appear on the disc. Taken this way, Threshold is a powerful emotional document that I know I will want to come back to.
Carolann Solebello: Alice
Carolann Solebello: Wash Me Clean