Frank Emerson,
Dear Sarah
(Devil Dog, 2001)

Dear Sarah opens with its featured song, "The Flag of Our Fathers." It goes on a bit too long and has far more choruses than necessary. It also suffers from an odd echoing effect on the recording that distracts from Frank Emerson's strong voice. But the Revolutionary-style pipes and drums and the ending rendition of "Taps" add a distinctive touch to an otherwise too simple song.

"The Flag of Our Fathers" is an honest indicator of what lies ahead: unabashedly sentimental songs, with just enough style to avoid being bland. Emerson sings with such obvious strength of feeling that it's almost embarrassing. Even those who don't enjoy patriotic fervor will find themselves swept up in his clear enthusiasm and solid tenor.

While there are certainly many songs devoted to the United States, there are enough universal ballads to keep the American theme from cloying. "An Toglach/Waltzing on Borrowed Time" is soft and understated hymn to the perilous life of all soldiers, even those who survive. Emerson touches on the Irish influence with "Wild Geese of the Irish Brigade," a fast-paced tune about the Irish brigades in the English armies, fighting for causes which were almost never theirs, and "The Lark," a flute-driven, mournful piece of reflection with more than a hint of a Celtic sound. "The Piper's Refrain" honors the Scottish influence in America, with the story of a Scottish soldier in French-Indian wars haunted by a premonition of his death. "Ashokan Farewell/The Sullivan Ballou Letter," addressed to the Sarah of the title, could be from any soldier to his sweetheart.

Although most of the ballads are traditional, there's also a smattering of musical influences from other eras. There's an oddly '70s-inspired opening to "Shelter," a wanderer's dream about a utopian resting place. "She's Gonna Marry Me" undoubtedly belongs to the swing era, in spite of its folksy treatment here. Every tune is given an instrumental twist to link it to its subject, making the music as varied as the subject matter.

Dear Sarah ends with another piece about "That Ragged Old Flag," a heavy-handed, metaphor-laden paean to American glory. The most overtly nationalistic of the songs, it's also the least successful, though a powerful rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" interwoven saves it from being unlistenable.

Though it ends on a weak note, Dear Sarah is a strong album, with songs that are catchy and easy to sing, and enough musical twists to keep the somewhat simple lyrics from becoming dull in repeated listenings. Emerson's voice, rough and deep, is almost worth the price of admission on its own, and gives the album the feel of a music hall performance. Buy yourself a seat in the audience and enjoy the show.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 29 March 2003

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