Ana Egge,
Bright Shadow
(Grace/Parkinsong, 2015)

Jami Lynn,
Fall is a Good Time to Die
(independent, 2015)

The Dakotas repose only hazily, if that, in the national consciousness. Often, writers who have occasion to mention them are confused about which is which; thus, it's not all that unusual to learn of such heretofore-undocumented geographical destinations as Fargo, South Dakota, and Sioux Falls, North Dakota. There is some dim awareness that Mount Rushmore is somewhere in South Dakota, and many know, at least marginally, of an oil boom in North Dakota. Beyond that, if there is anything beyond that, most Americans presume the Dakotas to be something of a backwater.

That last part is true. No one goes to the Dakotas to experience the 21st century, whose encroachments are fought fiercely there. "Progressive" and "Dakotas" are not words likely to be expressed in a single sentence. I speak from the accumulated wisdom of one who has spent much of his earthly existence just east of the borders of the two states. I'm a 10-minute car ride from South Dakota, and for nearly a decade I could easily walk to North Dakota. My first wife grew up in both states. If the stereotypes about a provincial, illiberal culture are empirically grounded, it is just as true that as one interacts with Dakotans, one also experiences their modesty, friendliness and hospitality. Pleasant surprises that defy cynical expectations abound.

One pleasure is South Dakota folksinger Jami Lynn. (Lynn, by the way, is not her last name but her middle, thus "Jami Lynn," not "Lynn," from here on.) Unlike her previous album (Sodbusters, 2011), a good portion of which draws on her research into the traditional music of the West and Upper Midwest, Fall is a Good Time to Die is singer-songwriter fare. But in contrast to most big-city practitioners Jami Lynn sets her songs, explicitly or implicitly, in rural environments. A graduate of the University of South Dakota, Jami Lynn lives today amid the state's Black Hills. Her affection for her native place infuses her music, though never sappily.

The album was recorded in Sioux Falls with local musicians who provide mandolin, dobro and guitar (Dalton Coffey) and acoustic bass (Andrew Reinartz), and later mastered in Nashville. Jami Lynn's expertly played banjo and guitar are in evidence throughout, to especially happy effect on the opening cut, "Polywogs." Overall, Fall has a crisp, straightforward sound, with Jami Lynn's commanding alto -- clearly a formally trained instrument -- celebrating the natural landscape and the cycles of birth, love, joy, loss and death. Think of her as a Gillian Welch of the plains. She's that good.

Ana Egge was raised in the microscopic settlement of Ambrose, North Dakota, but since then she has moved around to New Mexico, Austin and Brooklyn, the last her residence of some years now. In other words, her life in Dakota is far from immediate. After releasing several well-reviewed acoustic-pop albums highlighting her songwriting and eclectic tastes, Egge returns to those early rural memories on several cuts of this enjoyable recording, backed by the Stray Birds, a trio of folkish pickers from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and signed to the indie label Yep Roc.

Bright Shadow opens with "Dreamer," a jazzy Joni Mitchell-like song which is uncharacteristic of much of what follows, namely numbers in a pastoral country-folk vein. Egge's voice has a beguilingly dreamy, lilting quality, a perfect soundtrack -- as I can attest from personal experiment -- to accompany a lazy front-porch, small-town summer afternoon. Even my companion, one Robert (a feline-American and, albeit named after Robert Johnson, no great music fan), seemed impressed.

Egge possesses enviable writing skills. As witness to such I could cite the title song and "Jenny Run Away" in particular, but in fact there are no mediocre efforts. Her interpretative skills are fairly astonishing. I was shocked at how she turns "Wildflowers" into something so her own that at first hearing I didn't recognize it as a Dolly Parton song I've long admired. The closer, "The Ballad of Jean Genet," may seem a title rather more appropriate to a Velvet Underground album than to a cut on a downhome folk album, but Egge turns it into a hauntingly atmospheric piece that does not feel jarringly out of place. I doubt, though, that the name "Jean Genet" has ever been spoken on the streets of Ambrose, North Dakota.

Still, in summary: Jami Lynn and Ana Egge do their respective Dakotas proud.

music review by
Jerome Clark

12 September 2015

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