Saturday, January 7, 2012

Review: Martha Scanlan EP

Martha Scanlan - Tongue River Stories: Autumn (2011)
8 / 10

Martha Scanlan's fantastic 2007 debut album, The West Was Burning, was one of the most underappreciated Americana albums of recent years, and for years I've been waiting eagerly for her to release a new album. She stopped touring for a while, and I was afraid that second release might never come, but I've been regularly checking for updates anyway. Yet, somehow, I missed the release of this new EP and only found out about it a couple of weeks ago.

The title of the album refers to the Tongue River Valley, where Scanlan's family owns a home that she has spent a lot of time in while not touring. After taking some time off from touring and writing, she decided to write and record a series of short albums inspired by that place. The music on this EP was both written and recorded at her family's home in the valley.

Scanlan claims on her website that the songs on this album tell stories from the Tongue River Valley, but I would say that most of the songs don't tell stories at all, at least not directly. Rather, they seem to relate the thoughts and feelings of the narrator at a certain time and place. To the extent that these songs are about anything concrete at all, they are about relationships past, but we only hear about love and lovers through broken memory fragments interspersed with vivid naturalistic imagery.

The latter, presumably, is the influence of the isolated natural setting in which these songs were composed. Scanlan's lyrics aren't about the natural world, per se, but they are drenched in naturalistic metaphor: in "The Meadow," she compares her lover's hair to summer wheat, his smell to wild grass.  All of the songs here are replete with references to sun and moon, fields and rivers. The imagery of isolation combined with the recollections of loves past creates an overall effect of nostalgia and longing.

The themes of memory and nostalgia aren't new for Scanlan, but the songwriting on this album marks a definite evolution from her debut. The songs here are longer--three of the five songs are over six minutes, whereas the longest of the eleven songs on her debut was only about five and a half minutes. The writing here is also more consistently serious and mature, and Scanlan seems to have become more comfortable with her own individual style. She began her career as lead singer of Reel Time Travelers, an old time band playing a mix of traditional and original songs along with a good number of traditional instrumental tunes, and her first album was only a partial transition away from that style: it still contained traditional instrumental interludes, and a few of the original songs bore the distinct mark of old time music.

On Tongue River Stories, Scanlan fully embraces her new direction as an Americana singer-songwriter, and there is nothing here to suggest a past career in old time music. On all of the tracks but one, she does a Gillian Welch/David Rawlings thing, paring the music down to two guitars, with one strumming and the other flatpicking tasteful contrapuntal lines (the latter role is filled by Jon Neufield, who is also the guitarist for Decemberists side-project Black Prairie, and who, like Rawlings, plays a guitar with f-holes). On the remaining track, "Guardian Angel," Scanlan is backed by a full country band, and the results are wonderful, if a little out of place on this album: I can't help but wish she had stuck to the two guitar formula here and saved the country band for a different album where she could use it to full effect on all songs.

But that's a minor complaint, and overall this album leaves little to complain about except its brevity. The songwriting is excellent, the music truly beautiful. Scanlan's voice has a unique trembling quality that gives her songs a quiet emotional intensity (it also makes the lyrics hard to make out at times, but I'll take that trade off any day). Hopefully this album is the first of several in the Tongue River Stories project, and hopefully we'll be hearing from Martha Scanlan for years to come.

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