Caroline Herring,
(Signature Sounds, 2012)

With her previous release, Golden Apples of the Sun (which I reviewed in this space on 28 November 2009), Caroline Herring moved from intelligent, better-than-average singer-songwriter to something more unusual and distinctive. Not easily described, Apples is a leap of intellectual and artistic vision rarely encountered in popular music. It is at one level a tribute to the Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell of the 1960s, while at the same time a modern record sung in a voice -- literal and metaphorical -- that nobody would confuse with anybody else's. It is also an expression of Herring's debt to the folk-revival generation, testifying to her love of its music and her intention not to repeat what it did but to reinvent that sound for a new century.

It is an album hard not to be moved by. I do, however, remember wondering how one could possibly follow up something like this. For many performers Apples might represent the expenditure of an entire artistic capital. Thus, a certain unease ran through me as I pulled Camilla from the package. I shouldn't have fretted. Within the first minutes of the opening cut (and title song) I was hearing what I knew would be a fully satisfying collection of songs, different from Apples' but recognizably drawn from the same reserve.

Camilla, to be clear, does not seek to recreate Apples, except to the degree that one can comfortably begin to characterize Herring as a Judy Collins for the 21st century. This is Collins the folk singer, not the chanteuse she would become, but undeniably the Collins whose profoundly informed musicality is a central fact of her identity, to be recognized by even the most casual listener. Herring, a Georgian, also is more specifically Southern, the product not only of Southern vernacular music but of regional literary strains: Lee Smith, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers.

To some considerable degree Camilla is a meditation on the South, the subject one way or another of the nine originals. (The tenth is a soulful reading of the traditional hymn "Flee As a Bird.") Herring's songs come in the voices of Southerners, including African Americans victimized by racism, then rising to triumph with the emergence of the civil-rights era (the title number); an Appalachian mother mourning the death of a child (the sad and tuneful "Black Mountain Lullaby"); an immigrant's celebration ("Maiden Voyage") lovingly and hopefully quoting "This Land is Your Land"; a bittersweet reflection on rural people in their natural environment ("Summer Song"), and more. These events and emotions are all set in the world we live in now, but the words and the music conjure up the pasts that define our presents and drive our futures. One is struck at how much that is original Herring manages to find in the familiar.

The arrangements seamlessly interweave archaic sounds and contemporary ones. Herring's sweet-alto vocals speak wisdom and maturity, joy and sorrow. Her achievement, almost miraculously, is as sweeping as her ambition.

music review by
Jerome Clark

8 September 2012

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new