Debut release from polished newcomer Margo Cilker; our first of two features on this album of retro Americana hues in a new light, looking both backward and forward. A name to watch and remember.
Release date: 5th November 2021
Label: Loose Music
Format: Vinyl / CD / Digital
There is always pleasure in discovering someone new, especially when that discovery is by chance. And when the discovery is this good, the urge is to shout about it and to want to tell the world. So, warning duly offered, this is a shout. Are you listening?
So who is Margo Cilker? A footloose troubadour from Oregon, who, by spending the last seven years on the road, splitting her time between the US and the Basque country, has honed her art and harnessed her memories into this memorable set. The nine songs are like short stories, all told in her compelling tones, a husky wash of contralto, underpinned by a whole range of country styles, high lonesome steel and bar room piano two of the featured textures. At times you will recall a younger Lucinda, a warmer Gillian and sometimes a sassier Sheryl, but always is a feel of belonging. She lives these songs and lives in them.
Opening with the midtempo piano led That River, her voice carries this Springsteenesque song with conviction, her sister Sarah adding spookily similar harmonies, and the anchor in your heart has been dropped. With fiddle and, I think, the wail of a distant harmonica, this is classy fare. “Fortune favours the bold and the far away from home“, she sings, an argument she is immediately winning. From there it drops into the very Band Big Pink-y ‘Kevin Johnson’, all western swagger and bluff, which is as good a time as any to introduce the fact that all the keyboards here are courtesy Jenny Conlee of the Decemberists.
Broken Arm In Oregon, which may or may not be autobiographical, betrays Cilker’s ear for a good tale well told. She is said to be a good listener and to allow no detail to escape, and this song is a confirmation of that. Conlee’s organ is a soothing wash here, aided and abetted by the strings of Mirabai Peart, whose brief viola solo is a delight. The more stripped back Flood Plain then has Cilker searching her higher registers, a soaring timbre that is matched and met by the first appearance of pedal steel, Son Volt’s Jason Kardong. With all the songs thus far around the three minute mark, it is well due credit to producer Sera Cahoone that the atmospheres are so entrenched and so swiftly.
Tehachapi is, of course, the place referenced in the Lowell George/Little Feat song Willin’, on the road to Tonopah, that song inviting a vista of truckstops and sleazy saloons, so this is fittingly awash with a rustic B road cavalcade of N’Awlins style brass riffing and whorehouse piano licks. Barbed Wire (Belly Crawl) is another evocative title. “There’s a barbed wire fence way down in the canyon: are we inside or outside the line“, she asks, the song possibly a metaphor for where she sees herself. Or possibly just a true story, but it swings ably along, buoyed by the efficient and just far enough back beat of the drums. Record producer, Cahoone, provides the drums throughout, the bass coming from from Rebecca Young.
Cilker channels the spirit of 1980s Lucinda perfectly for Chester’s, a song Ms. Williams could and should cover in an instant. With Conlee adding plaintive accordion, this is a country waltz and is glorious. Followed by the twangy Brother Taxman Preacher, the lyrics have her wishing, in turn, she were the three in the title. Lighter in mood, or at least I think so, it casts some knowing asides about the state of play within the patriarchy. Slighter also in construction, it nonetheless has you humming after it ends, needing a replay to fully catch the bite of the narrative.
Which leads, irrevocably to the final track, notably longer than the rest of the songs and notably deeper. A sombre reverie based around how past dreams and adventures suddenly all seem to have disappeared, perhaps in a bottle or many bottles, of wine. With choruses switching between “I wish I had all of the time in the world” to “I wish I had all of the wine in the world“, it is a song of bleak and sad beauty, with all the melancholic wry of Mary Gauthier. The overall mood is further tempered by the spectral church organ of Conlee and Kardong’s haunted steel. A song of longing rather than regret, it is a galling listen and an exquisite way to close this record.
Pohorylle and Margo Cilker deserve notice. It would be good to see her brought over to these shores: I note she played Kent’s Small World Festival in 2016. it would be great to see and hear her perform these songs in 2022.
Here’s Barbed Wire (Belly Crawl), the official video: