Carrie Newcomer,
The Gathering of Spirits
(Philo/Rounder, 2002)

Carrie Newcomer isn't a star. She's not a household name, she doesn't sell millions of records and her touring schedule doesn't include large arenas.

With the exception of the latter (arenas don't provide much intimacy with the performer), it's too bad. Newcomer's strong, yet dulcet, alto contrasts nicely with her "fragile"-looking photograph on the CD booklet. Overall, however, her songwriting blends, rather than contrasts, with her deep, blissful voice.

This album, Newcomer's ninth, might best be described as a gathering of her Quaker spirituality and optimistic outlook towards life. "As Holy as the Day is Spent," the opening track, is not, despite its name, some sort of religious tract. It's more a comment about finding joy in the ordinary. Schmaltzy? Maybe, but it might also be a worthwhile, contemplative message in these troubled times.

Contemplative numbers dominate this album; the spirits Newcomer has gathered are thoughtful. "The Fisher King," based on the legend, is slow and brooding, "Little Earthquakes" is a pop-rock-oriented love song, and "Silver" is a love song that follows a bluegrass path, but even then, Newcomer's thoughts about love are reflective -- she's exploring ideas and asking questions aloud. Different musical genres don't seem to matter; her voice sounds at home regardless.

Perhaps that's because Newcomer's voice also sounds determined to get its message across. The final three songs are strong, bold statements. "I'm Still Standing" tells its message in its title. "I Heard an Owl" may hearken to her Quaker roots in its plea for peace: "So don't tell me hate is ever right or God's will ... The only peace this world will know can only come from love." It may sound preachy, but it's effective -- the kind of song to be sung at peace rallies to keep up spirits.

Newcomer closes with a contemplative piece, "The Things I've Gone and Done," sung against an acoustic guitar and an accordion. "I don't have another message/I don't have anything to sell/And there are no easy answers/As far as I can tell," she states. But she ends on an up beat: "It doesn't mean you shouldn't take the risk/I don't believe it will not happen/Just because it hasn't happened yet."

A Gathering of Spirits is a folk-influenced revelation from this singer-songwriter, a woman whose song "I Should Have Known Better" features on Nickel Creek's Grammy award-winning contemporary folk album, This Side. Carrie Newcomer is not a household name by any means, but she has the talent to inspire listeners to believe in a brighter day.

- Rambles
written by Ellen Rawson
published 6 September 2003

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