Rachel Baiman,
(Free Dirt, 2017)

The Mastersons,
Transient Lullaby
(Red House, 2017)

The Mastersons -- singer-songwriters/married-couple Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore -- have both opened for Steve Earle and served in the Dukes, his band. You wouldn't necessarily know that, though, from listening to them. Whereas Earle's sound is rough, earthy and rooted, the Mastersons hail from the harmony-driven pop of a few decades ago. The arrangements borrow elements of rock, folk and country, without ever feeling much like any one in particular except maybe, and broadly, the first.

While this isn't the sort of music I'm ordinarily attracted to, I can attest that the Mastersons do it, er, masterfully. The harmonies are gorgeous, almost angelically so. Beneath the placid surface the songs are awash in storm and conflict, as much so as on Richard & Linda Thompson's notorious 1982 Shoot Out the Lights. The Thompsons's marriage had ended by the time that album was released, however.

The Mastersons, whose third release this is, are still together, even if they're writing telling songs like "You Could Be Wrong," "Don't Tell Me to Smile" and "This isn't How It was Supposed to Go." It is also possible to interpret the last as a statement on American politics and governance in 2017, though I can't swear that was the artists' intention. "Fight" boasts the sweet, surely unique sentiment, I don't want to fight with anyone else but you.

Like the Mastersons, Rachel Baiman deals in confessional songwriting, notwithstanding a considerably inflated claim -- it's unclear if it's made by her or her publicist -- that Shame is about "growing up female in America." What makes the album more interesting than comparable singer-songwriter fare is the Appalachian texture of much of it, echoing Baiman's background in traditional music. There is also her alto singing voice, which she employs to notable if happily understated effect.

It barely merits observing, since the response is "of course," that these are mostly break-up songs. Break-ups are among life's lousiest experiences -- few of us manage never to undergo one or (usually) more -- but they always make for more interesting statements than (what are called in Nashville) Positive Love Songs. Break-up songs are also cathartic for sufferers, whether the singer herself or listeners seeking assurance that they're not alone. If you're one of the latter, Shame ought to do right by you.

On the other hand, my favorite song has nothing to do with the above-stated. Co-founder of Folk Fights Back (organized as a part of the resistance to the White House's current occupant), Baiman champions the left sympathies of Woody Guthrie and other foundational folk artists. In the terrific "Never Tire of the Road" she transcends the usual musician's traveling blues to reimagine herself as no less than Woody himself. Yes, it's nervy, all right, but she pulls it off.

The song sticks in the psychic jukebox, and you won't mind at all that this particular worm has taken up residence in your ear.

music review by
Jerome Clark

27 May 2017

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