Kristin Sweetland,
Root, Heart & Crown
(Arbora Vita, 2002)

I pressed "play" on Kristin Sweetland's Root, Heart & Crown with some trepidation. I tend to steer clear of historical material and, for that matter, "story songs" in general, and this sprawlingly ambitious disk is full of both. Also, I don't consider myself much of an intellectual, and Root, Heart & Crown is a brainy project if ever there was one. However, the quality of the songs and performances, the range of the material and Sweetland's sheer talent won me over.

A highly-educated, scholarly songwriter, the 27-year-old Sweetland takes her inspiration from the 12th-century letters of Abelard and Heloise, the battlefields of Civil War America, the Greek myth of Hero and Leander, ancient alchemical lore, and occasionally such mundane subjects as the British Columbia landscape and the longing for summer. Even when she's on familiar ground her lyrics have a historical tone: "In dreams we will wander through cedar and alder" (from "Fall on the Ground") and "Hair of gold and skin of snow, lips of rose and a wing of crow" (from "Ladybird"). The disk is clothed in original, medieval-looking artwork and she's photographed as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (or is it Xena?) on the back cover. Whichever, it's an apt image, reflecting both power (to slay the vampires of the music biz?) and persona.

First, the power. Sweetland is a gifted lyricist and composer. Even when the actual meaning of the lyrics eluded me, I was captivated by their poetry. ("Farewell to the man in the black bowler hat/who is walking away through the field/out where the moon glow comes down like a halo/he'll go where the land meets the sea.") I assumed that Sweetland knows what she's talking about and tried not to beat myself up for being, apparently, such an intellectual slouch. In an effort, perhaps, to reduce the distancing effect of her subject matter, she tries to explain things in liner notes. "I have been reading the letters of Abelard and Heloise. It must be a right [sic] of passage for any tortured romantic." (Funny, the tortured romantics I knew just smoked drugs and skipped class.)

But despite the density of the subject matter, Root, Heart & Crown is an accessible and enjoyable listen from start to finish. Ken Whiteley produced the album with consistently tasteful and imaginative arrangements that feature George Koller on bass, Anne Lindsay on violin, Ben Grossman on percussion, harmony vocals from Stephen Fearing and Rebecca Campbell, and Whiteley on electric guitars. Unlike many singer-songwriters, Sweetland is an outstanding guitar player in her own right who has studied the instrument for many years, and two highlights on the disc are her instrumental guitar-based compositions, "Hermetica" and "Chaconne." Also, her voice is both sweet and mature, with a naturalistic edge and a lyrical lilt: kind of a cross between Loreena McKennitt and a young Lucinda Williams.

Overall, the impression I get is that of an enormously talented young woman who has a definite artistic vision and the wherewithal to take it as far as it will go -- which may be pretty far. Root, Heart & Crown takes the Canadian historical folk-song form and ratchets it up a notch, adding more edge and more commercial appeal.

But back to the persona. The only thing missing, for me, is a shade more immediacy and personal truth. That is to say, I sense that there may be a tendency for Sweetland to hide behind the beautiful language and mythic tales, intriguing as they are. For that reason, perhaps, I loved the simplicity of the traditional closing song, "Bright Morning Star." In fact, I was just about to mention Emmylou Harris (and her talent for blending the traditional with the contemporary in an honest and powerful way) when I noticed that Sweetland (in those liner notes again) mentions her. Sweetland seems to intuitively understand how far -- and in what direction -- she can go. In the meantime, Root, Heart & Crown is a gloriously auspicious debut.

- Rambles
written by Joy McKay
published 1 March 2003

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