Caroline Herring,
Golden Apples of the Sun
(Signature Sounds, 2009)

If you are already familiar with Caroline Herring, you might notice after listening to Golden Apples of the Sun that it is a departure from her previous music. While her music tends to fall into the alt-country/Americana format, this CD has more of a stripped-down folk sound. It is a nice mix of original songs and some very uniquely arraigned covers. Produced by David Goodrich, who is best known for his work with artists like Chris Smither and Peter Mulvey, he does his usual job of giving the CD a nice simple rootsy intimate sound. Most of the songs just include Herring's pleasing vocals and guitar and David's guitar.

Originally from Mississippi, Herring lists her musical influences as artists like Joni Mitchell, Kate Wolf and Judy Collins. She has also drawn comparisons to people like Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams.

The CD starts off with one of her original songs, "Tales of the Islander," where Herring pays tribute to a Mississippi painter and naturalist named Walter Anderson.

Herring also does a great job giving us some interesting covers and proves that part of her strength as an artist is an ability to reinterpret other people's songs. One of the more interesting examples is the Cyndi Lauper song "True Colors"; while it's not a song you would expect covered by a folk artist, Herring gives it a beautiful haunting sound.

"Long Black Veil," with guitar and banjo, has a nice traditional sound to it. Herring has a good time playing with the melody of "See See Rider" and the result works well. She also does a nice straightforward cover of Joni Mitchell's "Cactus Tree."

Another song that's been covered by many people is the Y.B. Yeats poem "Song of the Wandering Aengus." Herring gives it a beautiful melody. The CD closes with "The Wild Rose," which, with its slow piano part, takes on the sound of a hymn.

With Golden Apples of the Sun, Herring proves that she is not only a talented singer-songwriter, but also has a strong ability to give us interesting interpretations of other people's songs. Both of those qualities make this a very enjoyable CD.

by Dave Townsend
14 November 2009

Maybe it's just me -- although, frankly, I doubt it -- but the discovery that "Long Black Veil," recorded by hordes of roots artists as if in obedience to some unwritten law, has been covered yet again never fails to elicit a low, irritated growl. Anyone within listening distance could have picked up that growl as I removed Caroline Herring's Golden Apples of the Sun from the package in which it arrived. I could not have been more wrong. Sometimes it is good to be wrong.

Written in 1959 by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin,"Veil" was covered the same year by Lefty Frizzell, who turned it into a country hit. I was introduced to it on a Johnny Cash album a few years later. I thought it was a good story with a memorable twist, set to a nice tune. I did not anticipate that over the decades it would be beaten to death and, through sheer repetition, buried lower than the ballad's strung-up narrator. Miraculously, Herring resurrects the song resplendently, first by rewriting that worn-out melody, second by treating it as if it were something not from 50 years ago but from 150. There's her plaintive singing (with Ann Castro's backup vocal), and there is also the unsettling arrangement, incorporating old-time banjo and the drone of a one-stringed instrument (presumably a diddly bow) courtesy of David Goodrich, Herring's sole accompanist throughout Golden Apples. When the song came on the player, some moments passed before I even realized what it was I was listening to.

Small miracles abound on this marvelous recording. It arises from an unlikely, in lesser hands unpromising, premise: a modern-day folk singer's effort to pay tribute to two 1960s heroes, Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell. (In the latter 1960s it was still possible to think of Mitchell as something like a folk singer.) Herring even borrows the title of Collins's second Elektra album, released in 1962, consisting of all traditional songs but for a setting-to-music of W.B. Yeats's poem "Song of the Wandering Aengus," with its famous closing line "the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun." (Yeats took his inspiration from a legend associated with Aengus Og, the Irish god of love and beauty.) Herring offers up her own lovely, mysterious version of "Aengus," joining the esteemed company of other fine artists who have attempted the same; besides Collins, they include Karan Casey, Tommy Makem, Jean Redpath, Donovan, even -- rather incredibly -- Dave Van Ronk.

Herring does one early Mitchell song, the forgotten "Cactus Tree" (from Song to a Seagull, her 1968 debut) which proves -- unsurprisingly, given Herring's exemplary taste as much as Mitchell's -- well worth reviving. This cover also underscores Herring's debt to Mitchell's unique vocal style as well as to her composing approach. Yet this is entirely deliberate, really the whole point of the exercise. I did not think of Mitchell when I heard Herring's previous CD, Lantana, but I heard the same strengths: strong, graceful singing, superior songwriting, compelling interpretations of traditional and other material, and intellectual, emotional and musical maturity.

Every song is some variety of alluring. I've heard few singers who have so perfectly integrated art and folk song. And unlike Mitchell, Herring knows the tradition well -- it's part of her natural vocabulary -- but it is very much her own personalized vision of that tradition. Consider with all due awe the rolling, de-bluesified "See See Rider," with rarely heard but authentically aged lyrics. Her Mitchell-esque originals -- "A Turn Upon the Hill," "The Dozens," "The Great Unknown" -- likewise show that it only looks as if Herring were a borrower. She is, in fact, an owner of a magnificent and distinctive talent. With Golden Apples she is on her way, I trust, to the attention and acclaim someone with her gifts has coming.

by Jerome Clark
28 November 2009

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