I’m thrilled by the new: new songs, new places, new tastes, and new ideas. One of my favorite things about Independent Clauses is that I get to hear the cutting edge sounds as they are happening.
But sometimes I want something comforting and familiar–I’ve listened to Josh Caress’ Letting Go of a Dream probably more than 100 times. Josh Caress’ way with melody and mood are two reasons that I love his record so much, but another is that Letting Go sits in the timeless genre of singer/songwriter. You don’t have to be in that genre to become timeless, but it sure helps.
Ordinary Elephant is firmly situated in a time-honored folk/bluegrass milieu. Their songs sound new and old at the same time: songs I’ve never heard, but wrapped in a style and arrangements that are very recognizable. Crystal Hariu-Damore’s alto pairs with Peter Damore’s tenor over acoustic guitar, banjo, and stand-up bass. The songs on dusty words & cardboard boxes are essentially warm blankets of sound: you can wrap yourself up in them without effort. You don’t have to penetrate any gnarly lyrical difficulties or quirky arrangements; you can just enjoy the songcraft. It’s kind of like a folk version of The Weepies.
“damage is done” is a perfect example of this songwriting style. It’s a mid-tempo tune that contrasts a chipper banjo line with a world-weary vocal performance from Hariu-Damore. The resulting mood is easy-going but a little melancholy; a good “summer porch, warm afternoon” song. Not giddy, not morose–somewhere between, in that muddle and mix. “the great migration” features a violin and mandolin, giving it a fuller flair; closer “could have” is a bright, major key song.
You can pick anywhere in the album to start and you’ll be treated to comfortable, calm, organic tunes. If you’re looking for wild fits of fancy, this is not your jam. If you’re looking for earnest, honest folk music, dusty words & cardboard boxes is going to give you what you’re after. For fans of old-school Caedmon’s Call (when Derek Webb was still in it), stand-up basses, Gillian Welch, and the phrase “good ‘ol fashioned.”
Christa Wells‘ music is weighty without feeling heavy, as the singer/songwriter balances heft and grace with ease on Feed Your Soul. Wells relies on smooth arrangements and incredible vocal performances to create and sustain that tension. Songwriters like Sara Groves are the best comparison for Wells’ sound: mature, grounded songs with strong melodies and a melancholy streak.
When Wells delves into that sadness which looks longingly toward hopefulness, her songs soar. Closer “Being Loved” is a powerful tune distilled to a simple truth (“being loved is a hard thing to take/I will try”). “You Are My Defense” shows off the complete comfort that she has in her own skin, musically and lyrically. The opening of “Come Close Now” somehow balances being objectively gentle musically (piano/vocals/tapped drums) and subjectively crushing emotionally. Wells knows how to suck the listener in with a minimum of fuss, and that’s a deceptively difficult skill to master.
When Feed Your Soul heads in louder, funkier territory such as “Vanity Vanity” and the title track, the results are less immediately satisfying. I’d much prefer to keep hearing Wells play simple piano and level me emotionally with tunes like “For My Child” and “This Thing Is Not Going to Break You.” The exception is “The Way That You Love Me,” which funnels her emotional command into an upbeat love song much in the same way that Brooke Fraser turned out the wonderful “Something in the Water.”
Wells’ Feed Your Soul is a beautiful, soul-baring record that works with seemingly little effort. The amount of skill, hard work, and time that go into a record like that are almost never recognized, so I’m celebrating those elements here. Wells knows how to write a compelling song, and she knows that the way to turn it from “good” to “great” isn’t always to add more arrangement. I look forward to hearing more from Wells.
Caitlin Marie Bell does simplicity a very different way. At the extreme, the Americana singer/songwriter goes totally barebones by singing traditional murder ballad “Omie Wise” with only staccato percussion as accompaniment. Bell’s resonant alto voice sells the song perfectly, bringing an Irish flair to the work. Bell relies on her strong pipes throughout Blood and The Water, as she doesn’t employ anything more than a fingerpicked guitar, stringed bass, and gentle percussion to set the backdrop.
The most impressive thing about this spartan setup is not the live feel, but that Bell packs so much personality into the sound. Tracks like “River Song” and “Pallet on the Floor” slot her right in next to some of the giants of the genre both in sound and quality: the former pairs Bell’s lilting voice with the sound of a thunderstorm, while the latter displays a complex intimacy in lyric and vocal delivery. Both will stick with you long past their run time.
Both tunes spin together a small world in a few minutes–that’s hard for any songwriter to do, much less one who isn’t backed by a huge, involved band. The tunes on Blood and the Water possess a gravitas and maturity far beyond what I expect from a debut. These weighty tunes are very worth checking out for anyone who’s a fan of Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and other female Americana singer/songwriters.
The best moments of singer/songwriter Steph Casey‘s Whisper and Holler fall on the “whisper” side of that equation: when Casey’s songs are stripped down to sparse acoustic guitar and voice, her work shines. “Heavy Warm Heart” and the title track are lent an immediacy by their simplicity, as it feels like Casey had the melodies burning a hole in her pocket and just had to get them out there. The delicate guitarwork and engaging vocal tone mesh beautifully, creating magic.
There are some more full arrangements that shine as well: lead track “Nice to Almost Know You” gives off a relaxed, back-porch vibe in its assured/regretful stance looking back on a failed relationship. “Kapiti”builds out a simple Jack Johnson-esque beach vibe into a highly enjoyable track. Both of those tunes fall right in line with the ethos that characterizes the highlights: take one thing and do it well. Added bonus: Casey is a Kiwi. (Australia and New Zealand are just excellent these days.)