Caroline Herring,
(Signature Sounds, 2008)

The admirable Massachusetts-based Signature Sounds label can usually be counted upon to deliver the goods -- the goods being rooted singer-songwriters with something interesting to say.

A strong, mature work co-produced with Rich Brotherton, Caroline Herring's Lantana is no exception, brimming with creatively conceived, mostly self-penned material, 10 songs in all. Herring's vocals -- alto with vibrato -- afford them a persuasively life-as-lived quality that may take more than one listening to register and appreciate. You might say Herring, who forces nothing and gives the impression of living comfortably inside her imagined song-worlds, is self-assured enough in her gift to resist the impulse to hit up you upside the head with it.

Ballads have been with us forever, their purpose to chronicle human events, more often than not the most appalling and disturbing of them. Herring uses the form to recall a wildly publicized episode from 1994 South Carolina, when Susan Smith drowned her two children in a lake, then tried to lay the blame on a black man (an imaginary one) in a demented effort to preserve a hopeless romantic relationship. It's the sort of nightmarish story you or I might prefer to forget. But in "Paper Gown," sung in Smith's voice, Herring turns Smith into a recognizable, suffering fellow human being, while in no way attempting to diminish or rationalize the pure evil of her act. Songwriting ambition of that magnitude is uncommon, even more rarely achieved, and when it is pulled off as it is here, the artist is separated from the pretender.

Herring has a way with a particular sort of pensive melody, in service as much to observation of others as reflection on oneself (uncharitably called navel-gazing), as in the deeply serious yet lilting, banjo-inflected closer "Song for Fay." Unlike many singer-songwriters, she's obviously well-versed in actual -- in other words, traditional -- folk music. There are two traditional pieces here. The lullaby "All the Pretty Little Horses" is given an impressively dark treatment, causing it to feel less like a song from a mother to a child than a personal statement of faith and endurance in a hard time.

Two originals borrow titles from old songs: "Lay My Burden Down" and "Fair & Tender Ladies," the latter an eloquent testament to the strength of women who "understood a time and place / Upon which you proclaimed / Your skirt was not to hide behind / Your womanhood no alibi."

One of the loveliest trad-folk melodies defines the Texas fiddle tune "Midnight on the Water," and Herring, who is a tasteful guitar picker, performs that melody in satisfying fashion. If there ever was a tune that told its story without words, it's "Midnight." Unfortunately and gratingly to at least these ears (yours may be more accepting), after an instrumental interlude Herring opens her vocal cords to Jon Croizat's lyrics, which never rise above redundancy or the irritatingly conventional (expect, in short, the usual romantic sentiments). The problem is not Herring's singing, always astute and pitch-perfect; it's just the notion that such a richly expressive melody needs words to give it voice.

Herring fronts a small, mostly acoustic band whose members include well-known banjo master Danny Barnes, fiddler Warren Hood and pedal-steel man Marty Muse. The singer's voice is at all times up front, where it belongs. All concerned do their best to show how a smart, expertly conceived album is done, and Lantana, with confident understatement, turns out just so.

review by
Jerome Clark

22 March 2008

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