Heidi Talbot,
Angels Without Wings
(Compass, 2013)

On third or fourth hearing, it occurred to me that with Angels Without Wings Heidi Talbot is assuming -- how consciously I can only speculate -- the persona of an Irish Emmylou Harris. By that I don't mean the country-folk Harris of early years but the urban singer-songwriter of her later career. I imagine that Angels is less passing experiment than permanent transition, from a largely traditional artist into one seeking a mainstream audience, albeit on her own terms.

Not that folk influences are exactly absent or down-played. Some songs are unabashedly based in the tradition. Two -- "Dearest Johnny" and "When the Roses Come Again" -- borrow lovely arcane melodies. "Roses" feels as if pulled from the repertoire of a Celtic Carter Family. Little here is likely to aggravate fans of Talbot's previous work, which stretches back to a fondly recalled stint with Cherish the Ladies. On Angels Talbot has absorbed the sum of a lifetime's musical influences, folk and pop, and spun them into a reasonably seamless musical web. In doing that, she is backed by high-profile players as Mark Knopfler, Tim O'Brien, Jerry Douglas and an array of distinguished British Isles instrumentalists (Andy Cutting, Phil Cunningham) and vocalists (Julie Fowlis, Karine Polwart).

If you have heard Talbot before, you know her voice is as piercingly clear and emotionally layered as, well, Harris's. Simply as an instrument, it has never sounded better than it does here. The arrangements (fashioned by producer John McCusker, veteran folk fiddler as well as Talbot's life partner) are refined but not at all soullessly slick. The songs, most of them Talbot compositions or co-writes, are melodically robust enough to withstand the occasional hackneyed rhyme or mawkish sentiment, at which the opening (and title) cut is perhaps the most egregious offender.

The ambitions that put Angels to flight can only have been mighty, demanding both innate talent and a degree of fearlessness. The album, which succeeds on the whole, has already started to generate admiring, even extravagant notices. In January a reviewer for England's venerable fRoots magazine pronounced it the top album of 2013. I, on the other hand, am willing to hear what else the year has to offer before slamming down the hammer of judgment.

After a lifetime of listening, I well understand that what attracts (or does not attract ) me to a piece of music is not all there is to say about it. So when I express the wish that there were, as on her previous records, some straight-out traditional material here, that tells you only about my preference for old folk songs, expansive enough to encompass ones gussied-up in shiny new garb. It also betrays my restrained enthusiasm for pop, the musical mainstream and crossover sounds. The just-stated are a significant part of Angels, which would not exist without them. For most listeners, I suspect, these will be no problem. Actually, I sort of envy them.

I admire this astutely conceived and executed album even as I do not love quite all of it. I happily concede that if a folk-based musician has greater ambitions, she has every right to them. Nothing on Angels, by any standard an impressive achievement on a level that takes it well above the bulk of albums that will be released this year, should drive any listener to begrudge whatever commercial success comes its way, particularly if it arrives -- as it assuredly does -- with barely anything in the way of irksome marketplace concession. If this is pop, in other words, it is such in the finest possible sense. You certainly can't say it's dumbed down.

In any event, it bears noting that Emmylou Harris (on her new recording with old friend and musical partner Rodney Crowell) has returned to her country-folk roots. Maybe Talbot has a similarly extended career in front of her, long enough to allow for the tracing of a comparably unbroken circle. Let us hope Talbot's career will be as rewarding -- in all senses -- as Harris's has been.

music review by
Jerome Clark

9 March 2013

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