Portland singer-songwriter Josh Schroeder is a very busy, very talented man. His solo single “Monster with a Golden Heart” is exquisitely haunting folk, lo-fi folk song. He also fronts the side project Josh & Mer, whose sound is gentle, melancholy folk buoyed by pretty harmonies.
Queen Esther‘s new album, The Other Side, is unlike anything else you’ve heard in recent years…or possibly ever. Queen Esther calls it her “Black Americana album,” often setting her soulful vocals atop classic country-inspired Americana melodies replete with rustic strings.
The album’s first single “Oh, Sun” and especially the track “I’ve Come Undone Again” are prime examples of Queen Esther’s signature “Black Americana” sound. An alternative take of the latter song is included as a bonus track.
Queen Esther’s cover of “My Big Iron Skillet” is by far my favorite track. A bluesy, classic country contemporary of Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” the Wanda Jackson song is the perfect fit for Queen Esther’s voice and musical style.
The album also features two covers of the Steve Miller Band’s “Jet Airliner” – my favorite being the funkier bonus track version.
The beautiful finale “I Feel Like Going Home” is another standout track. As I said when Queen Esther first released the song two years ago, hers is the most moving cover of the song I’ve heard since the Inner Voices choir performed it on My So-Called Life twenty years ago.
Allison Crowe has been a very busy girl this year. After a surprise cameo in the summer blockbuster movie Man of Steel and the release of her exquisite traditional folk covers album, Newfoundland Vinyl, Allison quickly rushed back into the studio to write, record, engineer, produce and create the cover art for her upcoming album, Heavy Graces. She only announced the album’s existence at the end of last month and Heavy Graces will be released tomorrow, October 15th, via Allison’s own Rubenesque Records.
Heavy Graces is comprised of five new, original Allison Crowe songs, a cover of Pearl Jam’s “Better Man” and two versions of Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.”
Allison’s delving into traditional folk music for Newfoundland Vinyl seems to have influenced her own songwriting. Songs like the opener “Through These Heavy Graces” and “You All Haunt Me” layer Allison’s lovely voice over simple but heartfelt folk acoustic arrangements. You can see the premiere of the “Through These Heavy Graces” video, featuring footage from Buster Keaton’s classic film The General, below.
Though Allison apparently only took up the fiddle for the recording of this album, she already sounds like a folk fiddle pro in the standout track “Words.” What a lush piece of work that song is! There’s a touch of Celtic folk in the instrumentation, haunting backing vocals and a slow building, seething tension until Allison unleashes her wail toward the end of the song. I’m very happy to be able to premiere and share the mp3 with you below. Update: I also created and premiered a new video for “Words” on November 22, 2013 and added it to the review below.
As I wrote when we premiered the video for her choral version of “Famous Blue Raincoat,” I couldn’t imagine even someone as talented as Allison successfully matching, let alone improving, Cohen’s original or Tori Amos‘ beautiful piano rendition. Yet where Cohen took the song to a melancholy depth and Tori gave it a bittersweet wistfulness, Allison gives the song a new feeling of suspense with a slightly faster pace and choral embellishments. Her cover at times recalls the elegance of Joan Baez‘ operatic folk rendering. And, as always, Allison’s vocal is gorgeous, multi-faceted and full of emotion and grace. You can stream the track and watch the video below.
Allison’s piano makes a very welcome return on her striking cover of Pearl Jam’s “Better Man.” I’m a Pearl Jam fan, so I don’t say this lightly: Allison Crowe’s cover of “Better Man” is better than the original. You can watch the video, featuring footage from the classic silent film Broken Blossoms, below.
On those two covers as well as the captivating original “Dissolve,” Allison once again uses layers of her own voice to mimic a backing choir. It’s a technique she developed for Newfoundland Vinyl, but she seems to have perfected it on Heavy Graces.
The original song lyrics on Heavy Graces seem to deal most often with regaining control of one’s own life, venting anger at and breaking free from oppressive influences and starting fresh with integrity intact. Whether such fierce and independent themes were born from the death of a relationship or Allison’s brief brush with Hollywood, it seems our favorite independent singer-songwriter is more determined than ever to forge her own path. I predict we’ll be seeing Allison Crowe not once but twice on our best of the year list.
Nathan Salsburg worked with Rayna Gellert on arranging and performing traditional and original songs for her Old Light collection. You can stream and purchase selected tracks at Bandcamp and buy the full album at Amazon.
A curator of the Alan Lomax archive, Salsburg is doing great work in keeping traditional music alive. He was interviewed on this fascinating episode of WFPK After Dark, which features recordings from the archive. Salsburg also exhibited his talents on this NPR Tiny Desk Concert, and his debut album as a solo performer, Affirmed.
Editor’s Note: Coincidentally, Brendan had already prepared the following post about the folk song “Pretty Saro” before the news this week of the unearthed, previously unreleased (not even on bootleg) Bob Dylan version. Recorded in 1970 during the Self Portrait sessions, Dylan’s “Pretty Saro” will be featured on the new 35-track box set Another Self Portrait. The box set will be released on August 27th and features outtakes, demos and live versions of songs from Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning. You can watch the video for Dylan’s recording of the song below.
As with many 19th century songs, lyric’s vary – here’s one version:
I came to this country in eighteen-forty-nine,
I saw many true loves but never saw mine.
I viewed all around me and I am alone,
And me a poor soldier and far from my home.
It’s not the long journey I’m dreading to go,
Nor leaving the country for the deads that I owe.
There is nothing that grieves me nor troubles my mind
Like leaving pretty Saro my darling behind.
I wish I was a poet and could write a fine hand,
I’d write my love a letter that she might understand.
I’d send it by the island where them waters overflow
I’d think on pretty Saro wherever I go.
Farewell, my dear father, likewise mother too,
I’m going for to ramble this country all through.
And when I get tired I’ll sit down and cry
And think on Pretty Saro with tears in my