I imagine a room that seems to have only one woman in it, with her guitar. But she only seems to be alone. The muse of songwriting is there with her, invisible even to her. As she sings and plays a new song, other musicians are drawn to her, and they come and listen. Some take out instruments and join in. Soon her song is over, and another singer starts up where she left off, the muse having gone to the new singer. More musicians join in, and more singers take up the task in turn. Soon, there is a full band, inspired by each other and this invisible presence. And then the moment passes, but the songs remain. I am happy to present them now.
Heather Styka: Lucy and Sarah
Heather Styka is that woman alone, but her song Lucy and Sarah soon draws a sympathetic fiddler to her side. No wonder. The song is a remarkable ballad of depression and the power of friendship. It’s not all that easy to make me cry, but the quiet power of this one did the trick. The impact of the song builds through the details of what Styka leaves out, as well as what she puts in. Her performance does the writing justice. Other songs on Lifeboats for Atlantis have fuller arrangements, but the writing is always there, and Styka gives each song just what it needs.
Jenn Rawling: Big Old Lake
Jenn Rawling is the one whose name is on the album cover, but Take the Air is the work of the duo or Rawling and Basho Parks. Big Old Lake has Rawling on guitar and Parks on fiddle joined by Willem Joersz on standup bass, and the interplay of this trio, plus a drummer playing with brushes for subtle accents, carries the sound here. The song describes the realization that a place the narrator has been away from is no longer home. The situation is bittersweet, and that comes through beautifully. Elsewhere, Rawling and Parks add banjo, keyboards, and even trumpet on three songs. It adds up to some unusual textures for folk-based music, but all makes sense when you hear it.
The Good Intentions: The Sound of Time Passing
First of all, a consumer warning. The Good Intentions heard here are a British folk/ Americana band whose only previous album was Poor Boy. There is also an American group called The Good Intentions, and there is a rock band called Good Intentions, without the The.
The concept of British Americana is an interesting one. It’s not hard to imagine an American musician writing these songs, but the performances here are both more restrained and more polished than an American band might have done. That means that the pleasures of this album are subtle, but they do get under your skin. These Good Intentions are a trio, all of whom sing, and the vocal harmonies are one of the things that make this album something special. The Sound of Time Passing is a sweetly nostalgic song that shows just how beautifully the group’s approach can benefit a song.
Nancy K Dillon: New Train
On Rose’s Guide to Time Travel, Nancy K Dillon’s songs are pulled between folk and rock. On New Train, this tension comes out in the interplay between the haunting electric guitar and the fiddle. The song is a folk-gospel number, but the setting here gives this kind of song a new power. Elsewhere on the album, there are more folkish numbers, but that creative tension is always there. Dillon’s strong vocals and emotional commitment to the material hold the whole thing together and make it memorable.
Dave McGraw and Mandy Fer: Forget the Diamonds
Forget the Diamonds is essentially a rock song, and a fine one. But the electric guitar player has left my imaginary room, and the arrangement is acoustic. No matter. The power that the best rock songs convey is here, along with some tasty fiddle lines in the middle. The quieter moments on this album reveal just how much of a joy it would be to hear these songs performed by just the duo of Mandy Fer and Dave McGraw, But the arrangements here give the songs extra bite, and they thrive under this treatment. Both Fer and McGraw have turns on lead vocals, and each holds their own quite nicely in the fuller arrangements.