Rachel Harrington, |
City of Refuge
(Skinny Dennis, 2008)
Understated and precise, City of Refuge casts an almost hypnotic spell in its finest moments, and there are many of them. As one takes in Rachel Harrington's spellbinding reading of the venerable hymn "I Don't Want to Get Adjusted to This World" -- the title is quoted in Iris DeMent's "Mama's Opry"; here's your chance to hear the actual song -- heaven feels as immediate as a vivid dream, available to all who just close their eyes. Harrington sings plaintively, the simplicity of her delivery driving an utterly persuasive summoning of spiritual courage, as a small string band saws away behind her. Together she and it address the uneasy coexistence of the temporal and the eternal. You don't have to be a believer to believe her.
In her other foray into sacred material, Harrington reimagines the more familiar "Old Time Religion" and "Working on a Building" -- here fused interestingly into a medley in which verses sometimes intertwine -- as languid jazz exercise, punctuated by mandolin and clarinet. If anybody has ever done anything like that before, it hasn't been in my aural presence. The fervor with which those lyrics and melody are usually broadcast is ratcheted down a few degrees, but not to a spot on the temperature scale where warmth fades. The first time you hear the cut, you may not be able to recover from the resulting disorientation -- especially if you know the songs from their many recordings by country, bluegrass and gospel (both white and African-American) groups -- but the next time, you can revel in the sheer beautiful audacity of the arrangement and the performance.
Most of City, beginning with the package in which the disc is carried, is sepia-toned, conjuring up images of a lost 19th-century Western-coastal America where souls are lost -- a Klondike gold-rush prostitute in the opener, "Karen Kane," for example -- or found. In larger truth, Harrington's approach serves to translate Appalachian folk forms into a universal language only passingly linked to any particular time or space. She has more in common with the visionary-traditionalist Crooked Jades than with two ostensibly more obvious contemporaries, DeMent and Gillian Welch. The 54-second "The Clearcut" sounds at first blush like an unaccompanied Kentucky ballad, but as you listen more closely and struggle to discern the narrative logic, you realize that these are not old (or faux-old) lyrics but elusive modern poetics. Harrington is as much a literary artist as a musical one, as "Carver," from the words of the revered poet and short-story writer Raymond Carver, underscores.
With her band, whose membership includes Tim O'Brien on fiddle and regular accompanist Zak Borden on mandolin and guitar, Harrington fashions gorgeous, spiraling melodies topped by lyrics of startling originality and power. Perhaps this is nowhere more so than on "A Housewife's Lament," a soaring, otherworldly waltz with images that allude -- at least as I interpret them -- to ancient ballads like "The Devil & the Farmer's Wife" and "The House Carpenter" but take them to a wholly separate place.
There is, full accounting compels me to mention here, one inexplicable lapse: Harrington's decision to cover Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe." Harrington's old-timey arrangement moves it, as I'm sure was her intention, in the direction of traditional ballad story-telling, in contrast to the crappy Vegas-style production of the original. So give Harrington credit for doing her best, even if with fatally flawed material. "Billy Joe" remains pure kitsch, irritatingly and heavy-handedly told. There is every reason, though, to overlook this single failed experiment. City of Refuge is better -- a whole lot better -- than just another good country-folk record.
6 December 2008
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