Thursday, July 21, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1573: Grace Cummings

Welcome back to the CD Odyssey! I’ve taken a couple short walks down by the water this week, (I work near an inlet) listening to music and soaking up some sun. It has been very therapeutic, not least because this next album was keeping me company.

Disc 1573 is…. Storm Queen

Artist: Grace Cummings

Year of Release: 2022

What’s up with the Cover?  The stark monochromatic Grace Cummings balances a parrot full of riotous colour. Like Cummings music this cover is both beautiful and slightly awkward.

How I Came To Know It: The same old boring story. I read a review, then I listened, and then I asked my local record store to order it in. Which they did.

How It Stacks Up: I have two Grace Cummings albums. Both are amazing and it is very hard to pick between them. I’ll put “Storm Queen” slightly out in front…for now.

Ratings: 5 stars

Listening to Grace Cummings sing is an experience that is very hard to quantify. Just to say it is unique would be a disservice. It is more like a spiritual revelation. This is a record that will stop a conversation. That will cause you to look up from whatever you are doing and catching the attention of someone else within audio range, lock eyes as you both silently express, “can you believe we are hearing this?”

Listening to Grace Cummings is like being transfixed by the keening of a ghost as she warbles her fell and beautiful secrets to you from the underworld. It will create shivers up your spine, even as you feel its uncanny wisdom flood your mind.

After multiple listens to her throaty warble, I just liked it more and more. There was a small part of me that realized this might be one step too strange for some people. The intense way she modulates back and forth from head to chest voice, like a whistle in a cavern, might not sit well with some. I pity those folks though, because while Cummings vocal style requires full attention for best effect, it is hard to not want to give it to her.

So what kind of music is this? Well…folk, if I had to choose. Compositionally, she is a lot like Bob Dylan crossed with Leonard Cohen. The lyrics are rich with imagery and pathos, intensely personal and yet so poetic that it feels more like an abstract truth than a diary. I suspect it is both.

“Storm Queen” is much more ornately arranged than her first record, “Refuge Cove”. Like that record, the songs are held down principally by a guitar, strummed intensely, because to not strum intensely would be to have those vocals wash you out to sea. However, she works in a whole lot of other flourishes as well, with strings of various kinds and even a theremin. It is a lot, and while I love the stark beauty of “Refuge Cove” all that extra support just makes this record sigh a bit deeper.

Lyrically, Cummings knows how to string together evocative language that is further supercharged in the delivery. The album’s best example is the horrifically stark break up song, “Up in Flames”. My favourite stanza is the second:

“It's winter now, and I feel like Robert Frost
If only there was a birch tree to hang upon
If only I was a poem, sitting silently in the rain
And you were a dream, just swimming in its brain
But Notre Dame burns today, its beauty is up in flame”

That first line will freeze you with its cold despondency, and when Notre Dame burns at the end you are reminded of Frost’s poem about how the world will end. Ice or fire, or in the case of a Grace Cummings break up song…both. And if it feels a bit overwrought, well the whole record feels that way, but with her delivery you can be assured that overwrought ends up being just the right amount of wrought.

While you don’t need a visual for this stuff to hit you, I strongly recommend the video for “Heaven”. For maximum impact, make this full screen. As you watch this video, you will look into Grace’s eyes. You will be thrilled, invigorated, and made to feel slightly uncomfortable, all in a good way. At some point in your journey you will realize that you are not looking at Grace Cummings at all. She is looking at you!

As if I didn’t love her enough already, on the title track Cummings even invokes Townes Van Zandt:

“Townes Van Zandt
Took a hold of my hand
So I wouldn't feel alone
I just can't feel alone

It is a song for anyone who has ever taken solace in artistic creation, be it someone else’s or your own. This song is about every great turn of phrase that ever reached out and gave you comfort, when mere human touch wasn’t going to get it done.

Like that experience, Grace Cummings is beyond human. This record changes me when I listen to it, twisting and turning my soul like a tree growing in the wind, and making me stronger in the process.

Best tracks: All the songs, but I particularly like: Heaven, Up in Flames, Freak, Raglan, This Day in May, Storm Queen

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