Rachel Harrington,
Celilo Falls
(Skinnydennis, 2011)

Celilo Falls successfully follows up Rachel Harrington's City of Refuge, which I reviewed here on 6 December 2008. I admired the earlier CD for its quiet strength, beauty and bow to older folk-music traditions, notwithstanding the fact that Harrington is mostly a singer-songwriter.

Actually, on Falls, but for Art Hanlon's "Spokane," she's entirely a singer-songwriter. That means there is nothing on it like her otherworldly reading of the old-time hymn "I Don't Want to Get Adjusted to This World," the standout cut of a passel of outstanding ones last time out. On the current disc, however, her original "He Started Building My Mansion in Heaven Today" shows that she retains her talent for singing Christian-themed material with a 19th-century sensibility. And don't let a couple of familiar titles mislead you. "Pretty Saro" and "Little Pink," venerable songs from the Appalachian South and other parts, are here so that Harrington can redraft them. Gratifyingly, she's done so without jettisoning their singularly plaintive moods. "Saro" is even performed, authentic-ballad style, minus accompaniment.

A grown-up in an enterprise plagued by more 20-somethings than you can chase off your lawn, she distinguishes herself as an artist with musical roots deeper than any that the shallow soil nurturing other singer-songwriters could begin to sustain. The cover photo exposes a not-young, tough-looking woman who appears to have traveled a few lost highways and gone 90 miles an hour down more than one dead-end street.

Falls' tone is autumnal, with the occasional flash of rueful humor ("You'll Do"). Along with disappointed love (most memorably imagined -- or recreated -- in "Goodbye, Amsterdam"), running obsessions include sex, mortality and nature, all treated from an unsentimental, mature perspective and carrying a sense of life's eternal impermanence. The magnificent Columbia River falls of the title convey the idea: though nature meant them for the long, long haul, a dam project in the early 1950s abruptly buried them under.

Co-produced with the Northwest's busy, always smart Evan Brubaker, the album boasts the services of an understated acoustic string band whose members include the well-known mandolinist Ronnie McCoury, son of Del. A discrete string section colors the death-haunted "Bury Me Close." Falls creates the sepia-toned psychic atmosphere of a fading America where memories alone, ever farther out of reach, hold on, however barely. But it's all so perfectly evoked that, for all its gloom, you're happy to live there as long as Rachel Harrington is singing it.

music review by
Jerome Clark

9 April 2011

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