Caren Armstrong,
Independent Girl
(Wildplum, 1999)

The combination of a black lace shawl and Converse high-tops worn by Caren Armstrong on the cover of Independent Girl seems fitting. This self-written collection of primarily acoustic folk tunes has a few surprises and just enough "independence" to make it stand out from many other forays into the genre.

Vocally, Caren is a competent, pleasant-sounding alto with a thinner quality to her upper range. She doesn't shy away from the higher notes, though, and often exploits the contrast in timbre by skipping from the lower octave to the higher. On the slow folk songs where she provides her own backing vocals, her sense of two-part harmony is excellent. Her range, uncomplicated vocal lines and perfect articulation make these songs very singable (an important point for wannabe folk singers).

Instrumentally, you'll find much more than typical folk music chord strumming here. As a lifelong guitar player and teacher, Caren brings considerable skill to her music. Her intricate but unassuming guitar work adds real quality to this CD. On a few tracks, additional string accompaniment is provided by Joe Craven on mandolin, Derek Jones on acoustic and electric bass, Sam Broussard on lead guitar, and Wayne Johnson on hi-string, classical guitar and ukulele.

The folk songs are the meat of Independent Girl. "Don't Go to Sleep," "I Feel Your Love," "It's a Long Long Way," "Slipping Away" and "Leaving Lincoln County" are all beautiful songs that wholly express a variety of emotions with a striking efficiency and fusion of melody and lyrics. The rare combination is solidly evident in Caren's songwriting.

A couple of the tracks have a distinctly country sound. On "Maybe I Did" and "I Can't Stop Thinking About You," Caren's voice twangs and slides right along with the lead guitar. I could imagine several big-name country stars singing these or some big country producer hearing them and sticking Caren into the country niche.

About halfway through the CD, just when you think it's safe to label it a folk-country/folk thing, you hear the quotable words: "Well I wish you were a snake so I could skin your ass and roast it on the fire." What follows is unclassifiable song with some great guitar fingerpicking and clearly hostile (but fun) lyrics. Another surprise is the jazzy "Pound of Flesh," where Caren's opinion of the medical and media communities' homogenization of the female figure is accompanied by simple percussion and a no-nonsense bass line. Go, Caren!

Independent Girl is a very enjoyable disk that spans a range of emotions and musical styles. Caren Armstrong's vocal, instrumental and writing talents are well showcased by this collection that will grab your attention. Give it a listen.

[ by Valerie Fasimpaur ]
Rambles: 30 May 2002

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