The easy and hard way to write about Light in the Sky would be to compare the new Red Molly with the old one. Molly Venter has taken the spot in the group that had been held by Carolann Solebello, and this is the first album with the new line up. It would be easy because it is an obvious entry point. It would be hard because I don’t want to say that this or that line up is better or worse. Red Molly was and is a special group of three women who bring diverse talents and blend them into a greater whole. Here, they are aided by the same backing musicians throughout the album, and that helps bind together a more stylistically varied set than before. The blues and country flavors are still strong here, as are the beautiful folk ballads, but there are also a couple of jazzy shuffles and one gospel number. And I got my wish: Fever is here as a delightful bonus track to finish the album.
On most of the album, Abbie Gardner plays dobro and Molly Venter plays acoustic guitar. Laurie MacAllister picks up an electric bass for two songs, and Gardner sets down her dobro and picks the banjo for one. The opening track, Dear Someone, is performed a capella, and serves as a wonderful intro to the blend of the three women’s voices. Gardner brings the blues and jazz influences, and has a sob in her voice that also works beautifully on the more country-flavored songs. She shines on Come On in My Kitchen, making the song a promise of shelter from the storm. MacAllister’s lead vocal on Ghost is a fine example of what she brings to the group. She delivers a clear reading of the lyric, her voice breaking with the emotion of the song. It’s never overdone, but the yearning of the song comes through perfectly. Venter’s voice has a smoky quality and a bit of bite in her delivery. This approach works beautifully to convey the gospel fervor of By the Mark, and the call and response vocal between Venter and the other two on this song is a great example of the rapport that these women have. Much as I admire Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, this version of By the Mark, with its full band arrangement and vocal ensemble work, greatly improves on the original. The band includes drums and stand up bass, with piano or organ on some tracks, and fiddle and mandolin on others. Jake Armerding’s fiddle parts are especially notable. Appearing on seven of the album’s fourteen songs, Armerding is asked to cover a wide stylistic range, and he delivers.
Light in the Sky was recorded entirely in the studio, but thematically, this can be considered a road album, at least in part. Dear Someone, Ghost, and especially Oh My Michael are songs of yearning, and of separation over a great distance. As rendered here, Walk Beside Me and Come On in My Kitchen are songs of female solidarity and bonding. And the title of Your Long Journey speaks for itself. But there is also Hold It All, the first song written by Molly Venter that the group has recorded, and it is a prayer for strength. And the rest of the songs concern falling in and out of love. In addition to Hold It All, there are only two other original songs this time, both cowrites by Abbie Gardner. But Red Molly is a group that is committed to strong songwriting, whether it is in their own material or their choice of covers. Light in the Sky is a collection songs of varied emotions, eloquently written and beautifully performed.
Red Molly: Oh My Michael
Red Molly: Fever