Amber Cross,
Savage on the Downhill
(independent, 2017)

Sarah Jane Scouten,
When the Bloom Falls from the Rose
(Light Organ, 2017)

I'm old enough to remember when singer-songwriters were a novelty and not a nuisance. In those days I noticed with dismay how rapidly they were proliferating and how, as their ranks rose, the talent pool got ever thinner. There are many reasons to lament songwriting by those who shouldn't, and one of them is that the genuinely gifted practitioners often end up overlooked.

Sarah Jane Scouten and Amber Cross merit our attention. They don't sound alike except broadly, each showing her roots in folk and country, with Scouten adding vintage pop and ramped-up rockabilly to the mix on occasion. Both grew up in rural parts, Scouten in British Columbia, Cross in Maine and now coastal central California. Cross is the grittier one, something like a modern, if non-Appalachian, Hazel Dickens, while Scouten sometimes exudes the stately grace of Sandy Denny (or at least a Denny immersed in Canadian experience) or the wry humor of Kate McGarrigle. Each brings her own gift and perspective to the recording studio, however, and doesn't depend upon what she has taken from her influences.

While Cross is not a country singer, she's like somebody you could meet in a country bar (albeit likely the smartest person there; I speak as one who devoted much of a misspent youth to frequenting dens of dim lights, thick smoke and loud, loud music). Cross's country is not country music, a manufactured entity, but an authentic rural sensibility, which you can't fake though many have tried. Only someone immersed, for example, in the gun culture that permeates non-urban America would recognize the first word in Savage on the Downhill (it's a rifle brand). Though in my adolescence I made the life decision to hunt no more and haven't touched a firearm since, I imagine that were we to encounter one another, as fellow dwellers in the remote provinces, Cross and I would converse easily, with many cultural touchstones in common.

A fierce yet brittle quality figures prominently in her singing and to her lyrics, seeming to call up deep, unresolved feelings of romantic bitterness. The title song, written with producer Ray Bonneville, feels downright sinister, with strong hints of impending violence. It is, in fact, an extraordinary song, employing hunting metaphors rarely encountered outside traditional songs such as the bawdy English "Bonny Black Hare." "Savage," however, is more in the spirit of the late Bruce Phillips's lethally conceived "Rock Salt & Nails." Images of barely contained rage pervade some of the songs and in such unsettling fashion that one reads Cross's note of appreciation to her husband's "continued love and patience" with a certain relief.

"Echoes" tackles a theme -- alienation and old age -- memorably addressed in two early John Prine songs, "Hello in There" and "Angel from Montgomery," if in a different voice and from another (albeit comparably melancholy) point of view. The album concludes with the one non-original, Bonneville's "Lone Freighter's Wail," which not only is exactly what you would think it is but proves that it's still possible to write terrific train songs. Savage on the Downhill is among the most moving albums you're going to hear this year. That is, if you seek it out, which you should if you know that good music makes the world more bearable.

Scouten writes songs, often conjuring up conflict and disappointment in love, animated by intelligent lyrics and startlingly affecting tunes. On two occasions she strays directly into the traditional music in which she is happily conversant, choosing songs I had never heard before, "Britannia Mine" and "Where the Ghost River Flows," both Canadian, both arranged impressively. They alone would cause When the Bloom Falls from the Rose to stand out. Then you start counting Scouten's attractive, distinctive vocals and her sharply crafted originals, including but not confined to "Acres of Shells," "Poland" and "Rosehips for Scurvy," and you're hearing someone and something you'd like to hear a lot more of.

music review by
Jerome Clark

15 July 2017

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