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Janet Bean And The Concertina Wire / Haley Bonar / Jennie Stearns | Dragging Wonder Lake / The Size of Planets / Sing Desire (Thrill Jockey / Chairkickers' Music / self-released)
Whilst the music world is already flooded with male singer-songwriters pouring down through every A&R drain pipe imaginable, it could also be said - without any intention of sounding sexist - that the feminine flipside of the coin is becoming equally as crowded. So in the interests of time/space economising, [and with a stern stare from your editor] here's three ladies reviewed in one.
First up we have New York State resident Jennie Stearns, with her third self-released solo album 'Sing Desire'. Stearns, as an alumnus of Mary Lorson's Saint Low ensemble, certainly knows how to balance herself on the old melody/melancholy axis, with her nonchalant yet yearning tones recalling a latter-day Lucinda Williams or a post-Gram Emmylou Harris. But instead of dressing-down her songs in dowdy acoustic threads, Sterns calls upon the wardrobe-fitting skills of fellow upstate inhabitants. Which means enlisting the reliable services of Mary Lorson herself, Billy Coté (Madder Rose, The Jazz Cannon), Gabriel Tavares and Chad Crumm (both from hideously overlooked alt-folkers Plastic Nebraska), brother Richie Stearns, as well as erstwhile touring partner Johnny Dowd. Together they clothe Stearns' songs in deconstructed trip-hop (You Save Me), atmospheric Appalachian folk (Whisper) and colourful Latin attire (Sleeping), keeping her away from the straight and too narrow - which is of course, a good thing in our culturally- homogenised times.
Well worth a look then, as is this new Low-sponsored offering from Duluth, Minnesota's Haley Bonar. Following a lower-key route to Stearns, Bonar has seemingly spent far too much of her 19 years in isolation, which has evidently been of benefit to her lonely-eyed songcraft. More of a traditionalist it's true, but adventurous enough in her multi-instrumentalist interchanges, and blessed with a seriously serene set of pipes, to take 'The Size Of Planets' that all-important extra (alt) country mile. Recording in the same converted church used by Low to record last year's 'Trust' LP also helps, allowing Bonar to tap into that same haunted streak of spirituality that possesses her labelmasters. So if you can think pleasant thoughts about an unproduced Suzanne Vega or a de-kooked Mary Timony, you'll be close enough already to loving this graceful little record.
Last up comes the semi-solo debut from Chicagoite Janet Beveridge Bean. As a treasured mainstay of country authenticators Freakwater and indestructible indie-rock pioneers Eleventh Dream Day, Bean's entry to the kingdom of solo records actually deserves to be left unobstructed by default. But despite being given the keys to the city, Bean too often stays inside safe country houses, only venturing out occasionally to let some light shine on her undersold talents. Where such illumination does come, Bean's songs glimmer with ebullient beauty. Giving us a skeletal Cat Powered piano-ballad (Suddenly), a gospel-fired reverie (All Fools Day), a rambling barroom torch song (Glass Of A Stranger) and a blast of brilliantly twangy power-pop (My Little Brigadoon). Not a bad album per se, just an under ambitious one, though fans of Neko Case's most old timey Nashville moments should definitely take a listen pronto.
CWAS #12 - Summer 2003