Rita Hosking,
(independent, 2011)

One reward for reviewing CDs is that, once in a while, one that you really like -- as opposed to dutifully or abstractly admire -- shows up in your mail from somebody you hadn't heard of before. Rita Hosking's Burn, one of the genuine surprises in a pretty decent year in music, is right up there with Gillian Welch's The Harrow & the Harvest in the ranks of intelligent, moving, rooted-in-real-folk-music singing and songwriting. This is not Hosking's first CD but the first to find its way my way.

Hosking, who is the product of small-town California, thus not yet another slick Los Angeles musician, has a voice you are unlikely to mistake for another. She's a superior, distinctive, but not sweet-sounding vocalist, recalling someone with an abundant, not always easy life experience passed among blue-collar working people. The waitress in her extraordinary "Ballad for the Gulf of Mexico" feels too real to have been merely imagined. Firefighters, race-car drivers, restaurant dishwashers and miners are here, too. The photographs of her suggest a woman in middle age, someone who's been around and who has things that matter to sing about.

Yet, though there are some small elements of country music in the arrangements (courtesy of producer Rich Brotherton) and in the rural inflections in Hosking's singing, this is not country music. The lyrics are skillfully crafted, showing evidence of something like poetic training, including a keen sense of metaphor and symbol. None of this lapses into pretentiousness, however. It helps that the melodies are unfailingly memorable. I also like it that Hosking has a political sensibility that she does not disguise -- nor should she -- but always ensures works for, not against, the requirements of the song.

"Ballad for the Gulf of Mexico," my favorite cut, is the best new song I've heard in months. In its lyrical evocation of a ruined environment and desperate unemployed laborers, it feels like a "Blowin' in the Wind" for the early 21st century. The first few times I heard it, it literally brought tears to my eyes. Everything stands out here: the powerfully spare acoustic setting, Hosking's shattering vocals, the almost unbearably beautiful tune. Drop in anywhere on Burn, however -- "The Coyote," "Indian Giver," "When Miners Sang," "My Golden Bull" -- and pleasures are to be found. Hosking is most assuredly not just another of the way-too-many singer-songwriters overpopulating the landscape.

music review by
Jerome Clark

19 November 2011

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