Little things can make an amazing difference. Rebecca Zapen strums a cavaquino—a South American relative of the ukulele featuring non-metallic strings—for most of her folky album Nest, and the change of string tone elevates this album. The delicate nature of these 13 songs is accentuated by the fact that there are few (if any) jarring moments on the album- hard stops are just difficult to do on this graceful instrument.
That grace lends tunes like “Swamp Pit,” “Lakewood,” and “Grandfather’s Song” a lilting, gentle quality that sets them apart from other musicians’ works. It’s likely that these songs would not sound as arresting with a metal-strung acoustic guitar. The strummed instrument in “I’m Gonna Make So Many Things For You” has a resonance and string squeak that are indicative of a standard acoustic guitar; the song sounds much more like Sandra McCracken and other upbeat female folksters than the rest of the tunes. “I’m Gonna” is a very good song, but its charms come from its vocal melody and rhythm patterns, not from its tone. The rest of the songs, which draw all of those three elements together, truly shine.
But Zapen isn’t a one-trick pony, as she proves with “Colorado.” The state-inspired closer actually sounds more like it should be called “Ireland,” as Gaelic-reminiscent cello and violin lines accompany Zapen’s tender voice in a very Unthanks-esque tune. It’s pretty, but certainly unusual in the context of the album. Then again, it’s not as strange as the bossa nova cover of “Addicted to Love” (seriously) that directly precedes it. This is not your average album in many ways.
Nest‘s brightest moment is the aforementioned “Swamp Pit,” where poise meets charm, and tone meets melody. The arrangement is subtle, yet strong: understated, but confident in it. Rebecca Zapen realizes a fully formed vision, and it is unsurprisingly resonant emotionally. The rest of the tunes attempt to hit that height, and succeed to smaller degrees: “Jarcaranda” probably comes in second, although the Simon and Garfunkel-esque ballad doesn’t display her own idiosyncratic vision as strongly. The clarinet in “Grandfather’s Song” helps create a beautiful tune as well.
Nest is a beautiful album that draws the light toward a talented, unique songwriter. It is not without room to improve, but it certainly offers a lot to hear and revel in.