Monday, June 1, 2020

CD Odyssey Disc 1373: Ana Egge (with the Stray Birds)

It is my birthday week, and I’ve celebrated by both a) taking some time off and b) buying a bunch of music. I might’ve overdone it a bit, with 10 new albums either in my possession or winging their way to me as I type this.

I’ll talk about those albums when I randomly roll them for a review. And speaking of the Odyssey’s dice gods, they have been noticeably favouring this next artist a lot. This is the third review of her in the last 27 albums and the fourth in the last 75.

Disc 1373 is…. Bright Shadow
Artist: Ana Egge

Year of Release: 2015

What’s up with the Cover? Only one of the best Giant Head covers ever. Ana Egge has created a still life out of her own profile, replete with all manner of flora and fauna. My favourite detail is the cat peering out from her neck.

How I Came To Know It: I knew Ana Egge through a Matt Patershuk album where she did some guest vocals. However, this album was of particular interest for me because she made it with another of my favourite bands, the Stray Birds. Finding it was damned hard, and I eventually located it through Amazon a few months ago. I use Amazon as a last resort but I really wanted this album, and so I succumbed to Jeff Bezos’ charms. “Never again!” I thundered after clicking “purchase,” knowing deep down I’d probably give in again down the road.

How It Stacks Up: I am still on the lookout for two more Ana Egge albums, but currently I own only four. “Bright Shadow” comes in at #1. In addition, this is now my last Ana Egge record (so far) and so here’s a recap:

  1. Bright Shadow: 4 stars (reviewed right here)
  2. Bad Blood: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 1347)
  3. Road to My Love: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 1302)
  4. Lazy Days: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1345)
Ratings: 4 stars but almost 5

On every album, Ana Egge puts a little bit of a different spin on her contemporary folk stylings. On previous reviews I’ve noted her crossover into indie, radio pop and good old rock and roll. “Bright Shadow” is Egge’s nod to bluegrass. The album drips with folksy intimacy and jumps with a bluegrass beat. Somewhere in between the two, magic happens.

It helps to have the Stray Birds as a backing band. If you haven’t heard of these guys before you should correct the error. In the meantime, let me give you a bit of a teaser: they are three of the finest bluegrass players in America. Egge is no slouch on guitar herself, and when you add in Maya De Vitry (fiddle, banjo), Charles Muench (upright bass) and Oliver Craven (mandolin, fiddle, slide guitar) you get an embarrassing surfeit of talent. While I partially regretted not being treated to Maya De Vitry’s lead vocals, her contributions to the harmonies and backing tracks provide just enough to leave you wanting more.

Besides, Egge’s voice is plenty strong enough. If anything, she reaches her greatest heights on this record, blending world weary romanticism with a sweet and resonant tone that has you hanging on her every word.

The Stray Birds’ bluegrass and Egge’s more contemporary stylings marry perfectly on “Flat Top Guitar” a song about an old guitar and the happy memories of all those who have played it, from long-distant county fairs to the more recent efforts of some neighbourhood kid. It’s a fanciful notion, but if you’ve ever listened to a well-worn guitar’s tone, it is easy to believe it remembers its lifetime of notes and chords.

On the bluegrass side of the dial, we are treated to a reimagining of a traditional fiddle tune with “Jenny Run Away”, and a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Wildflowers” which – dare I say – I liked better than the original. Both tunes showcase the Stray Birds’ skill once again.

On the more contemporary side, the title track is a delightful exploration of the wild and the beautiful. This song will have your soul lilting gently up and out of your chest but don’t worry, it’ll feel good. The hymn-like “Rock Me (Divine Mother)” immediately follows to coo and comfort that soul back down again and into a state of alert restfulness. And as for “Turning Away”? Well, that’s a song that’ll break your heart into a million pieces in just 2:39, and leave you glad it happened. Sadness was never so sublime.

The album ends with “The Ballad of Jean Genet”, a gorgeous character study of the French writer. I’ve never read any Genet, but if his stuff is half as sad and beautiful as the Ana Egge song that memorializes him, I’m looking forward to the opportunity.

In terms of production, bluegrass – with its inherent bent toward egalitarianism – tends to create exactly the sound I like most. Egge produces the record herself, and keeps everything even in the mix, with lots of space to let the brilliance of the individual players shine through.

My only gripe with this record is that it is only 28 minutes long. I listened to it four times today and while I never got tired of it, I did regret there not being more to it. As problems go, wishing your record wouldn’t end isn’t a bad one to have.

Best tracks: Flat Top Guitar, Jenny Run Away, Bright Shadow, Rock Me (Divine Mother), Wildflowers, Turning Away, the Ballad of Jean Genet

No comments: