Carrie Elkin,
Call It My Garden
(Red House, 2011)

Danny Schmidt,
Man of Many Moons
(Red House, 2011)

Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt, two Austin-based singer-songwriters, share both a record label and a romantic relationship. Each contributes to the other's recording. Man of Many Moons is Schmidt's second Red House release (I reviewed the first, Instead the Forest Rose to Sing, in this space on 14 March 2009), while Call It My Garden is Elkin's debut on the label.

Schmidt has been much praised, and justly so, for his music, lyrics and vocals, which reflect some knowledge of the folk tradition while nodding, if only in passing, to the contemporary songwriting influences of Bob Dylan, Jesse Winchester and Leonard Cohen. Man is solid and accomplished, if nothing on it ascends to the high atmosphere (e.g., the dazzling anthem "Swing Me Down" and the almost literally hypnotic "Oh Bally Ho") atop Forest, which felt like a revelation even to those of us generally suspicious -- or maybe just tired -- of singer-songwriters.

Schmidt's standards are sufficiently elevated that criticisms -- perhaps the most serious being a certain melodic sameness, albeit commencing from a nice melody or two -- may strike hardcore fans as unbecoming. True, it is never hard to listen to Schmidt, who has the unique ability to communicate a soaring, unsentimental sense of joy, while in another context taking a keenly focused, though not heavy-handed, sociopolitical stance. He certainly does not sound like Phil Ochs, but singing from what is manifestly a deep moral core, he manages to get the point across. "Guilty by Association Blues," in the current instance, is too refined and restrained to be called a protest song, exactly. Consider its final verse, which expresses what in this reactionary historical moment will be judged radical sentiments (it surely owes, by the way, something to George Orwell's Animal Farm); yet there is an unexpectedly gentle humor here, too.

If the songs are immediately accessible, their lyrics aren't necessarily so. The performances and the tunes will draw you back for repeated listenings, during which you may start to pay more attention to what specifically Schmidt is singing about. If sometimes opaque, the words are not forever inaccessible; their meanings expose themselves in time if you're willing to afford them the trouble, which you should. If you haven't heard him before, on the other hand, I'd encourage you to make your introduction via the generally superior Forest.

More produced than Schmidt's Man, Elkin's Call It weaves strands of modern folk, bluegrass, country-pop and acoustic rock. It opens with the cheerful, hard-to-resist and (I think) enigmatic "Jesse Likes Birds," and it concludes, a little startlingly to me, with "Edge of the World." The latter is the title of a song I wrote with Robin and Linda Williams -- it's on one of their 1990s Sugar Hill CDs -- but I soon learned this isn't it; in fact, its sentiments could hardly be less alike.

"Iowa," among my favored cuts, is a subject one would have thought Greg Brown, folk singer, songwriter and fiercely loyal Iowan, had patented. Still, I doubt he would mind having written this one. Elkin's record is bursting with strong originals, some of which engage my interest more than others (the more pop-flavored ones). Regardless of personal taste, however, all ought to alert the discerning listener to the presence of a new talent bestowed with a more than ordinary gift. Did I mention that she is a pretty impressive vocalist, too?

music review by
Jerome Clark

11 June 2011

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

Click on a cover image
to make a selection.

what's new