Thursday, November 16, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1073: Barton Carroll

For a short week it has felt pretty long, but I had two pieces of good news today. First, my Amazon CD order came in. New to my collection are:
  • Lera Lynn’s new album “Resistor”
  • The Masterson’s new album “Transient Lullaby”
  • Mountain Goats “Heretic Pride”
  • Dori Freeman “Letters Never Read”
Of all of these, I’m most excited about Dori Freeman, whose last album was my favourite record of 2016.

Second, I got a couple more CD shelves, so my growing collection will continue to have a home. My kind and understanding wife even let me put one in the living room.

Disc 1073 is…Avery County, I’m Bound to You
Artist: Barton Carroll

Year of Release: 2013

What’s up with the Cover? A very tastefully drawn flower. Also, that isn’t part of the album design – Barton Carroll signed it! Very cool.

How I Came To Know It: I read about it on a Paste Magazine article called “10 More Obscure Folk Albums to Add to Your Collection.” I did just that, ordering it direct from the artist’s website.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Barton Carroll albums, and “Avery County, I’m Bound to You” is number one! The best!

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

Listening to “Avery County, I’m Bound to You” I couldn’t see a path for Barton Carroll to commercial success, and it left me disappointed with the arbitrariness of fame in the music world. These songs may not be written with pop hooks in mind, but they are insightful, carefully considered songs from someone who clearly puts their art first. The album is like the flower on the cover, opening its hearts to you hesitantly, but no less beautiful for it.

“Avery County” feels like the heartland of America, pastoral and dusty, with a meandering quality that makes you think of long gravel driveways and towns where everyone knows your name, and people guard their secrets all the more jealously as a result.

For all the understated beauty of the songs, Carroll’s subject matter is often dark. Small towns are just as rife with broken hearts and troubled minds as anywhere else in America, and the sweet and light tones of the instrumentation on “Avery County” belie deep hollows of sadness lurking beneath.

The best of these is “Every Little Bit Hurts” a song about how life chips away at you bit by bit, populated by characters that have settled into a grim acceptance of their circumstances. Even within these sad stories, Carroll searches for answers:

That old drinkin’ man livin’ out on Tatum’s land
Well I’ve known him in this town all my life
He sips away his days and he’s got a kindly way
And if you care to sit a spell, he will abide

“I said you never looked much trouble though the years are comin’ on
There must be some secret that you own
He said son I never fight with old Jose you know
I always hold out for Patron.”

As wisdom goes, “drink quality tequila” seems like a low bar to clear, but it gets worse from there. Later Carroll meets up with an old girlfriend now working as a stripper and offering him a discount on a lap dance and the song ends with the narrator flipping a dismissive nickel to the local preacher. It is rough stuff.

Pauline” is a disturbing song of spousal abuse, both physical and emotional. A terrifying tale of a bully admitting his sins whose rage is so vast it makes him brag of his misdeeds when he should be horrified.

I recently read an interesting BBC article on Taylor Swift’s songwriting, and her propensity for ‘one note melodies,” which are compelling to the listener because they draw your ear to the lyrics, and because they are generally easy to sing along to.

While the songs are vastly different in most other ways, Carroll often uses the same technique. He lets his vocals be the most stable thing on the songs, high in the mix and shaking with a confessional vibrato. He isn’t a great vocalist (on “The Beech Mountain Waltz” he labours under the strain of a basic waltz) but he gets it done, and he sings with a conviction that draws you in. It also helps that he’s a master lyricist, with a gift for the quick turn of phrase and the slow burn of tragedy with equal skill.

The record is a bit short, clocking in at only 10 songs and 33 minutes, and some of the songs need a bit more melodic movement, but there aren’t any truly bad songs. Production wise I could use a little less flute, which Carroll throws in to create flourishes and dynamics, but feel a bit stilted and strained where it’s used. I would have been happier just letting the songs slowly work their lyrical magic on me.

Still, this is a hidden gem of a record, with a lot of great stuff. The stories are often tough, but Carroll unfurls them with a natural talent for the spoken word. In so doing he fulfills the greatest victory of any folk musician; making ordinary lives extraordinary, and finding art and lasting wisdom in the face of tragedy.

Best tracks: The Straight Mile, What a Picture Is, Every Little Bit Hurts, Avery County I’m Bound to You

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