Album Review: Caroline Spence – True North

The poet Mary Oliver once wrote that ‘Every poem is music…in poems we muse (as we say) about the tragic and glorious issues of our fragile and brief lives: our passions, our dreams, our failures. Life, death; mystery, and meaning.’ And so it goes that the best music must also muse on the very same concerns as the poets.

Caroline Spence understands this, and indeed, dedicates the first song on her new album True North to Mary Oliver herself. The album begins with Spence seeking to know the mystery and meaning of her own life and art. All I’m gonna be is a heart on a sleeve, she concludes. Emotional vulnerability and honesty strengthens the power of her voice and her lyrics.

The Gift is about memory, loss, time, trying to escape the past by embracing the present.

Sometimes of course the past catches up with you. Making a Clean Getaway isn’t as simple as just dreaming about it. In the end you can’t escape yourself. The melodies and production on these opening songs are rich and gorgeous, a perfect soundtrack to the blossoming springtime sunshine.

On ‘Blue Sky Rain’ the horizon darkens slightly with her quiet acceptance of the transient nature of some relationships. Change is necessary but painful.

Scale These Walls is an invitation to love. Maybe she can’t get there herself just yet but in her heart she’s ready.

And so the theme continues on Walk the Walk where she’s singing to all the introverts out there, those who know the answers but find it hard to put them into practice. Wallflowers can bloom of course, with a little help from their friends.

The album mixes light with darkness musically too. I Know You Know Me starts with a more ominous guitar sound, a searching sound for a searching song. Matt from the National sang on a different version of this song where her delicate, fragile voice worked nicely in contrast with his. Without him the elegiac strings add weight to her lonely echoes.

Icarus is more of a straight indie rock song, and here she admits to being reckless, a little brave and foolish even. Just call me Icarus, she wryly concludes. There’s quiet ambition here and confidence in the leap.

Her concerns look outwards on True North and The Next Good Time, offering comfort and advice to others. The latter is co-written with Lori McKenna, another wise songwriter of understated profundity.

The album finishes with There’s Always Room which has a light, whimsical quality. She goes back to her heroine Mary Oliver, the poems she reads as ‘scripture’. She’s lost, suffering, but recognises pain comes from love.

True North is an elegant and beautiful reminder to find the poetry, and the melody, in this wild and precious life. A little spring peach to savour.

BUY: https://carolinespencemusic.bandcamp.com

Album Review: Maren Morris – Humble Quest

Maren Morris has been criticised for many things in her short career: being over-confident is one, attention seeking is another, and most recently she’s been under attack for her outspoken views on country music’s failings. Her music has always fizzed with energy, attitude, self-confidence and heart.

A year ago she released the brave and powerful ballad ‘Better Than We Found It’ – a rallying call for everyone to do better, be better and not shy away from atrocities happening in America. Alongside her speech honouring black women in country music, she has shown herself to be a willing ally and someone unafraid and unapologetic in her views.

So then what to make of an album called ‘Humble Quest’, with cover art where she is half submerged in water, and a mood that is overall understated? Where is the blistering confidence of before? Where is ‘Better Than We Found It’ and her political voice? Has she been made to shut up and sing? Why the hell do women in county music have to be humble anyway? Continue reading “Album Review: Maren Morris – Humble Quest”

Album Review: Hailey Whitters – Raised

Spring is finally here and with it the release of one of the sunniest albums of the year, ‘Raised’ by Hailey Whitters. Fresh from wowing the crowds at C2C festival, Hailey is ready to bring back sweetness, light and humour to the country music genre. Raised is an ode to her country upbringing in Iowa, a reflection of where’s she from and a celebration of who she is at heart.

The kind of twee, cute and fun country music has been sorely lacking for the last few years. Kacey has gone over to the dark side of pop, the Chicks have got divorced and are wearing a lot of army gear and leather, even Little Big Town are singing sad songs about god and sexism. Step in a girl with ribbons, cute dresses and cowboy boots to brighten things up for a change.

Everything She Ain’t and Big Family are the kind of brilliantly catchy songs that sound effortless but feel like rare miracles. Theres also a great duet on here with American Aquarium’s BJ Barham called ‘Middle of America’ which is a slice of heartwarming heartland 90s country.

From lush and thoughtful songs like the title track Raised, which focus on who she is and where she came from, to more sassy takes on identity on Plain Jane we have an artist willing to be commercial while also experimenting a little with different styles. The Neon has a more obvious contemporary, radio friendly sound similar to what Maren Morris has perfected lately, albeit with added fiddle to keep things country.

Dolly is another obvious influence here, especially with lyrics about the contrast between your country upbringing and the big wide world. College Town explores the identity struggle of moving away to University and Pretty Boy offers kindness and compassion to those who don’t fit in.

Another highlight on here is Everybody Oughta which is a spin on the list song. Like many of the songs on here it is reminiscent of early Kacey in tone and there’s also a couple of songs about smoking weed and drinking beer to add to the High Times style fun. Hailey owes her a debt musically for sure but there’s none of Kacey’s cynical, eye rolling personality in the lyrics which keeps these songs fresh.

In fact Boys Back Home and In a Field Somewhere are so glossy and rose-tinted they sound like a fantastical dream. Well times have been so bad lately you can’t help wanting to look back at simpler, happier days. Sentimental hearts need sustenance too.

Raised may be too cheerful and commercial for some. Maybe it does lack a bit of bite and originality but honestly when the songs are this enjoyable I find it hard to see that as a negative. A ray of light is still a welcome sight even if you’ve seen it before many times. Shine on, Hailey.

Album Review: Erin Rae – Lighten Up

Erin Rae’s last album ‘Putting on Airs’ was a slow burn for me, one that eventually became a warming fire which I returned to again and again. Her new album ‘Lighten Up’ with its title and imagery suggested a shift towards a more sunny disposition. As it turns out the title is more of a note to self, an encouragement, or even a plea. Looking on the bright side is not always an easy thing to do. Continue reading “Album Review: Erin Rae – Lighten Up”

Album Review: Hurray For the Riff Raff – Life on Earth

The first thing I have to say about the new Hurray For the Riff Raff album is that visuals are startlingly weird. On the cover Alynda looks like an extra from some 80s Io-fi swamp movie, and one of the videos released cast them as a nature punk, with a mullet, cavorting around drenched in blood. You can see why some of the below the line comments on the recent Guardian interview accused the artist of the crime of pretentious hipsterdom. Personally, I love their offbeat style. Alynda is unafraid of transformation, their artistry has vision, ideas, personality and above all something much rarer in this modern, homogenised music industry: individuality. Continue reading “Album Review: Hurray For the Riff Raff – Life on Earth”

Album Review: Aoife O’Donovan – Age of Apathy

Apathy is defined as a lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern. Back in the nineties such feelings of such disconnect were actively cultivated as a way to cope with the madness of the world. Yet in the modern, hyper-connected new century we are constantly bombarded with an expectation that we actually care about everything. Sometimes that in itself takes its toll. On her new album Aoife O’Donovan wonders what it might be like to live in an ‘Age of Apathy’ where life and love are simple and free from the lingering malaise. Continue reading “Album Review: Aoife O’Donovan – Age of Apathy”

Album Review: Pistol Annies – Hell of a Holiday

For me the best Christmas music contains truths about the emotional complexity of the season: from the drunken conflict of Fairytale of New York to the aching sadness of River by Joni Mitchell. Too many recent Christmas albums seem content with cliched offerings or weak cover versions of classics designed to capitalise on the streaming algorithm, rather than having anything meaningful to say about the season.

Luckily for us then our resident reality check heroines Pistol Annies are here to offer us something fresh with their brilliant new Christmas album Hell of a Holiday. We last found Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe on the Interstate Gospel, searching for comfort in Jesus and dealing with heartbreak, inertia and family trouble. Christmas then, being the time of year where women and relationships are stretched to the limit, is a natural fit for their songwriting skills. Continue reading “Album Review: Pistol Annies – Hell of a Holiday”

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