Steve Wilson. On music.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The 2011 Countdown Continues with No. 21, Meg Baird

Fans of music bubbling up from the indie-folk underground first became acquainted with Meg Baird as primary vocalist for the Espers. The Philadelphia ensemble is one of those bands that critics twist themselves in knots trying to categorize. While their sources are traditional, they put their own distinct spin, just as some of their inspirations – The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention and Pentangle  - did in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Of course writers and listeners struggled then to categorize the music of those bands; and they didn’t even have psych-folk or freak-folk to throw around yet. 

The Espers cover a lot of ground (psychedelia, shoegaze and Middle Eastern influences, as well as the full range of folk idioms). As a solo artist, Meg Baird steers a little narrower course on her new, second album Seasons on Earth. Conceptually, she betrays the sensibility of her generation when it comes to vocals and their place in the mix; where Joni Mitchell or other singers of her generation might have given pop prominence to vocals, Baird gives her guitar equal value. The results can vary from mesmerizing (it does lend a trance-like, live performance presence to these tracks) to maddening (sometimes it’s really hard to discern the lyrics). 

Baird’s a fine guitarist, adept at finger-picking in the vein of peers and influences like the late Jack Rose and her friend Glenn Jones, players who draw from the Tacoma school of John Fahey (mixing Appalachian folk and Piedmont style blues into a new American guitar idiom) and the Davey Graham-John Renbourn-Bert Jansch school of British folk guitar (a style which itself drew as heavily from American influences like blues and jazz as English and Celtic folk traditions). There’s a seamlessness to Baird’s playing that gives these songs a tranquil, hypnotic quality that’s only enhanced by her lithe, gentle singing.

Baird is often compared to Sandy Denny. Her range is similar, and her phrasing borrows from Denny, but her voice is breathier – suggestive where Denny was insistent, airy where Denny was sanguine. Baird reminds too of Jacqui McShee, the singer with Pentangle (which included the aforesaid Renbourn and Jansch), a little of Celia Humprhis, from baroque-folk cult faves the Trees, and more than a little of Vashti Bunyan. Like Bunyan, Baird’s soprano may be breathy, but it still has a certain gravity that gives her performances authority. 

Where here first solo album, Dear Companion, was comprised mostly of covers (including only two of her own compositions), Seasons on Earth flips that. Still, as good as her material is, it’s the two non-originals, sequenced in the middle of the album, that anchor the record. And where most of these songs feature accompaniment on Dobro and pedal steel from Marc Orleans, “Friends” and “The Beatles and the Stones” are carried entirely by Baird’s own fingerpicked guitar. The former, written by Jon Mark and first performed by Mark-Almond, is a spare lament for friendship lost and re-imagined. “The Beatles and the Stones” originates with Guy Chadwick and his band House of Love, the lyric an elliptic elegy for youth that wallows in the deliciousness of loneliness. Baird’s versions of these songs are true to the originals melodically, but her interpretations add a layer of melancholy that enriches the material.

Baird’s guitar is at the center of her original songs, but they feature, in addition to Orleans’s dobro/steel work, contributions from several electric guitarists and harpist Mary Lattimore. “Stars Climb Up the Vine” has a meditative swirl that salvages what’s essentially a shapeless tune running over seven minutes. Better is “Share” with Orleans’s Sneaky Pete Kleinow-style pedal steel licks, lending a Sweetheart of the Rodeo (Byrds) feel to the arrangement. With lines like “we just could not get it right” and “we could not keep up with you; what makes you think we wanted to” her vocal opacity becomes metaphor for the lyric’s sense of communication breakdown.

In the raga-tinged “The Land Turned Over” Baird sings, “for ten more drops of stillness I’d tell you anything,” which may be the loveliest way you’ll ever hear someone ask someone else to shut the hell up. “Stream” lives up to its title, being a suite of shifting moods, key and dynamic changes. There isn’t a lot of tune here, but the performance is still compelling. “Song for Next Summer” concludes Seasons on Earth with one of Baird’s shapelier melodies based on a guitar figure very much in the Bert Jansch mold. The song’s false ending reinforces the cyclical implications of the title; it’s a lovely conclusion to the record.

Seasons on Earth is one of those collections, not unlike Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left or Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, that succeeds in creating and sustaining a sweet, certain melancholy. I’m not prepared to say it’s as good as those classics, but I can say it belongs in their company. And that’s no small feat.

25. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for my Halo (Matador)
24. Fountains of Wayne - Sky Full of Holes (Yep Roc)
23. Bass Drum of Death - GB City (Fat Possum)
22. Coathangers - Larceny and Old Lace (Suicide Squeeze)

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