Reconstructed fables of remembrance; slow and charming, ethereal and angelic.
Release date: 27th January 2023
Label: Drag City
Format: CD / vinyl / digital
Wyrd folk, is that what it’s called? Never much one for the tyranny of genre-labelling, that is one with which I really struggle, often evoking winsome and twee. And this, nor any of her previous, come in with either epithet. At all. Freak-folk? Psych-folk, yeah, those have been other descriptions, slightly less toe-curdling, it’s true, but I prefer not to label her at all. This striking release reveals why.
So, since the emergence of Espers in 2002, Baird has been one to know and one to watch. That Philadelphia band ploughed their own idiosyncratic furrow for around a decade, merging the folk traditions of their own country and of the various old countries preceding, bathed in a shimmery swirl of psychedelia. As one of the original founding trio, it was her crystalline voice, alone and in harmony, that most caught the ear. I feel we haven’t heard the last of them. A plethora of bands and associations since have kept her name in focus, as well as her solo career, of which this is the fourth release. Intriguingly, and I think importantly, not only can she sing like a lark, but is a doughty and feisty presence behind a drum kit. When not breaking hearts with her voice, she can be heard thumping the tubs for Heron Oblivion, whose sometime dissonant maelstrom of guitar noise provides stark contrast to her gentler muse.
As it opens, with sombre drumbeat and piano, the ghost of Sandy Denny’s North Star Grassman album is evoked, the sound of something slightly baleful this way coming. And that is even before the vocals waft in, ethereal moans that goose the bumps. Atonal guitar throws in some seemingly random shapes. Ashes, Ashes is near instrumental, bar that ghostly multi-tracked chorale and goes both nowhere and everywhere. That decidedly spooky and entrancing opener is followed by the orthodoxy of Star Hill Song, a delicate strummed guitar and woozy backwash of keys and what sounds like a bank of mandolins. The Denny mood perpetuates, expecting “across the evening sky...” to be the words that come, but, of course, it isn’t, and it is the frailer tones of Baird that emerge. With a meandering melody, the Mattacks-esque drums still present and correct, it is a gently beautiful song. It is worth taking note that all the instrumentation comes via Baird and her Heron Oblivion bandmate, Charlie Saufley, presumably the source of the languid guitar parts, so beguiling here. Ship Captains is more of the same, with a slight feel of Space Oddity in the opening bars, before Baird takes it over to another galaxy; Starship Captains, maybe? The melancholic foreboding is immaculate, as she double tracks herself for a sort of chorus. Almost more a reverie than a song, a sense of wonder is being created here.
Cross Bay is an acoustic guitar-led strum’n’pick, her voice now, even more, a shadow, fearless echoes of David Gilmour in the chiming guitar motif. This might be the track to first play to the Baird-curious. No drums, nothing but guitar(s) and voice. Twelve Saints reprises the guitar sound, with added percussion, electric and keys, and carries a haunting sense of regret. There are words, but, low in the mix, sometimes hard to discern, possibly the intention, the mood sufficient for the message. A slowly struck vibraphone fits the substance like a glove. Unnamed Drives completes the triad of acoustic guitar-led songs, and is a trip back to even pre folk-rock stylisations, and could be Melanie Safka or even Judy Collins. Or a peculiar hybrid of theirs, given Baird’s characteristic voice, clearer here, and a little sturdier. The drums add an almost trip-hop backbeat.
The Saddest Verses contains swooping and slide guitar parts that have us back with Gilmour and his band, pre-Gilmour even, were, say, Vashti Bunyan ever to be their guest at the Roundhouse. (I guess I should apologise for the name drops and references, but, with the calibre of those comparisons, this should be nothing to fear). Broodingly mesmeric, with a sudden leftfield drop that brings a smile. But no time to revisit that, as Will You Follow Me Home conjures up a whole mood apart. Positively exhausting, by comparison, in pace, a loping beat and congas give this a sweet stoner vibe. Mellotronic strings swirl about the rhythms, the hand percussion particularly insistent. A wake up call of sorts, should you, poor wretch, have been nodding out any. Finally it is Wreathing Days; a single beat of the drum, then tinkling piano. Was that a head falling back into the tumbril, before a gaunt epitaph unwinds? Baird croons a lullabye, possibly for the deceased, over the repeated piano, the build slow and unobtrusive. Until you notice, it slowing and becoming more emphatic. A peculiar track to close the album, but one that sticks.
This is a record for frosty mornings, wrapped up warm, gazing out at frosty landscapes. The chill of the presentation is warmed by the glow of the production, helmed largely by Tim Green, a veteran of such woozy capturings. Baird has never sounded better, her voice beginning, just a little bit, to fray around the edges, adding a lustre of humanity to the occasionally a little over-pristine, don’t touch me, of her earliest work. It is frosty today; I shall play it again.
Here’s track 2:
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