Emerald Rae,
If Only I Could Fly
(independent, 2013)

The phrase that comes to mind as one listens to If Only I Could Fly is "profoundly musical." Emerald Rae, who is based in the Boston folk scene, is a formally, informally and formidably trained fiddler. She also plays, compellingly, acoustic guitar and something called the crwth (pronounced krooth), a medieval violin-like stringed instrument from Wales. The crwth introduces the first (and title) track, warning listeners to prepare themselves for something other than the usual.

I am going to presume that Rae is a middle, not a last name, so I will further presume to refer to her as Emerald without, I hope, unwarranted familiarity. Emerald's education comes from Cape Breton, Scotland and the Berklee College of Music. If Only is a solo recording in the most literal sense: she is the sole musician on it. She fashions a decidedly 21st-century take on the tradition, of a kind one expects to encounter more from a representative of the current generation of young British revivalists than from an American equivalent. While her presentation is not wholly original in that one (in context unimportant) sense, it is also the sort of thing only someone of extraordinary gifts could hope to pull off.

Of the dozen cuts, only three are actually traditional. Well, maybe when you total it up, two. "Sugar Baby" (done in a strikingly creative reading) is recognizably inspired by the original, most memorably associated with Dock Boggs but nothing at all like his. On the other hand, she reworks the melody to the Appalachian "Truly Understand" -- ordinarily, "I Truly Understand You Love Another Man" -- and puts her lyrics "Summer Time Will Come" to an old tune. Her own moody originals sometimes give the impression of emanating from the pen of an early Joni Mitchell caught in transit halfway between Scotland and the Southern mountains. The fiddle instrumentals, on the other hand, feel like music pulled out of some Anglo-Celtic equivalent of the Akashic records.

Clearly, this is not standard-issue singer-songwriter fare, but an effort to re-imagine and re-energize an approach to popular song that long ago lost its luster. It is even possible, I suppose, that Emerald's dark alto and brilliant settings make these songs sound only ostensibly fresher than they would in others' hands. What matters is that there is no cause for complaint.

My tastes being what they are, I am most immediately drawn to the more traditional material. If Only I Could Fly, however, is all of a piece, and what a wonderful one it is.

[ visit the artist's website ]

music review by
Jerome Clark

19 October 2013

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