Ana Egge & the Sentimentals, |
Say That Now
(Grace/Sentimental Music, 2016)
(Perpetual Hoedown, 2016)
A cynical British music journalist once remarked, with notably ill humor, that the day is soon coming when every American will be declared a singer-songwriter at birth. I know what he meant. There is undeniably a larger supply of singer-songwriters than the world requires. A goodly portion, who don't seem much interested in any music beyond their own, betray no discernible knowledge of any but other singer-songwriters. Nor do they have much to say that hasn't already been said, and better, elsewhere.
Of course there are exceptions, whom I always feel obliged to cite when I get off on an irritable rant like this one. I'll resist the temptation here, though. You can supply the names yourself, of the ones who've been around and are still welcome on stages and in studios, plus the occasional fresh faces. While usually I am hesitant to add names to that august company, I can happily report that Ana Egge and Coty Hogue carry the craft honorably. They have talent, brains, imagination and a solid modernist grounding in the folk tradition, which as Dylan has observed is essential to any would-be composer who picks up a guitar and seeks to write original material. Better than anybody, those old-timers knew how to create a song and tell a story.
Brooklyn-based but Saskatchewan- and North Dakota-bred, Ana Egge has been around for a while, but I caught up with her relatively recently, when I reviewed her previous release, Bright Shadow (Rambles.NET, 12 September 2015). That one was pretty good. Say It Now is even better, at least in part because it was recorded with the Sentimentals, an exceptional folk-rock trio from Denmark where the album was cut. But there are other virtues, such as Egge's affecting, cut-to-the-heart vocals and her sure-handed, grown-up writing. And then there are those marvelous melodies that lure the listener into repeated listenings.
Six of the 11 songs are co-writes, and another is the sole creation of Sentimental M.C. Hansen, the outstanding "The Girl from the Banks of the Ohio," which Egge sings in a compelling interpretation. Though the title may lead you to expect that it concerns the female victim in the classic murder ballad, it draws on the tradition of songs, ubiquitous in nations that border oceans, about separation of sailor from true love. "Away We Go," which Egge penned with David Moss, eloquently evokes the ambiguities of this American moment. Hansen himself sings the co-write "Still Waters Run Deep"; the title is the only cliche in this dark story-song with something of the flavor of an old North European ballad. Egge and Hansen's "He's a Killer Now" takes a searing look at gun violence and its consequences.
Among the CD's charms is Egge's way with songs (e.g., "Promises to Break") that feel country without actually being so, maybe because they're too smart and too original to be welcome in the Nashville mainstream. An attentive listener will notice that they eschew just about every cliche that underpins relationship songs.
Though Ana Egge & the Sentimentals keep the production lean and incorporate both electric and acoustic sounds, Coty Hogue's Flight takes wing in extraordinarily striking textures, woven with the stringed instruments associated with traditional music, even as they resist anything that might smack of excess. Not often do I find myself paying as much attention to the arrangements as to the songs themselves, but it happened every time I put this album on the player.
Not, I hasten to add, that the songs themselves are less than first-rate. The Washington state-based Hogue may bring to mind, here and there, the early Joni Mitchell, if warmer and more attuned to the model of earlier folk music. She does one oldtime piece, the well-known North Carolina murder ballad "Poor Ellen Smith" in a version removed from the standard bluegrass setting. She also covers Lucinda Williams' "Are You Down" (as in, Are you down with that? -- an expression I fear I will always associate with the George Costanza character on Seinfeld). It also contains the sort of slashing anti-romance sentiment that can only have taken its inspiration from a still open emotional wound. Still and all, the already dated slang aside, a fine song in Hogue's rendering.
There are, in fact, no bad songs, not even any mediocre ones. If I had to pick a favorite, however, it would be "Pretty Bird," which takes its inspiration from a whole lot of avian-themed songs in the tradition, most of all "The Cuckoo." If it doesn't sound like "The Cuckoo," it does communicate the impression of flying above it, taking in some of the same sights. Its words and melody are enough to carry you from wherever you are and whatever you're doing. And then there's Hogue's voice, a natural wonder in itself. Saying no more, I leave you to find out for yourself.
music review by
9 July 2016
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