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Feature Reviews: Emily Arin, Patch of Land; and Tara Nevins, Wood and Stone

Emily Arin
Patch of Land
[Self-issued (2011)]

Emily Arin’s Patch of Land opens with a breezy bit of folk-pop called “I Thought by Now” and then abruptly changes tone with “Waltz for Spalding Gray.” The melancholy, insightful perspective of the second track is closer to Arin’s sterling par. She combines the instrumentation of folk music with a cosmopolitan, even world-weary sensibility. “Vertical Miracle” picks up the pace again but lines like

How the years have come over me
Of habits that are stronger than chains
And live with me at close range

keep the mood reflective and the outlook existential. After the first listening you will not have a clear idea of what a vertical miracle might be, but you will want to know.

Arin’s voice is plaintive and gentle, shaded with feeling that comes across as entirely consonant with the meaning of every word she sings. You could profitably understand and enjoy this album even if you didn’t know a word of English.

Her supporting band is equally capable of the chamber-music atmospherics of “By the Fiery Glow,” the doo-wop swagger of “A Rainy Night in Memphis” or the folk-rock of “Vertical Miracle.” Pedal steel player Joe Novelli is a particularly noteworthy contributor, as he coaxes the mostly oddly appropriate noises from his instrument, recalling equally the SoCal chops of David Lindley and the imaginative forays of Bruce Kaphan (American Music Club).

Patch of Land’s pacing creates a landscape of gentle up-tempo hills separated by wider contemplative valleys. The mournful cello and delicately picked arpeggios of “When You Knew Me When” rise into “Memphis” and then the title track begins a final elegiac stretch that will leave you conscious of the blood in your veins and of the quiet comfort of sitting out of the wind in the light of a “Hidden Flame.”

Stream the whole album right here:

—Bill Chaisson (Trumansburg, NY)

Tara Nevins
Wood and Stone
[Sugar Hill Records (2011)]

As the opening bars of the title track kick into gear and the rest of the song unfolds like a well-oiled machine, the listener will be reaching for the liner notes of Tara Nevins’s new album and asking “Who the heck made this?”  [I actually did this. -Jack] The answer is Larry Campbell, the multi-instrumentalist often credited with making Bob Dylan’s band one of the tightest on Earth from 1997 to 2004. Those who are familiar with Nevins’s work with Donna the Buffalo will be immediately struck by how at home she sounds, her voice sits astride these arrangements with all the comfort, grace and confidence of a veteran rider on well-trained mount.

This, her second solo album, is the collection that most people were likely expecting the first time, but Mule to Ride (1999) consisted largely of traditional tunes played with old friends. Nevins’s contributions to the Donna the Buffalo oeuvre are tightly arranged verse-chorus-verse country-rock songs usually chronicling some stage in the cycle of personal relationships but occasionally expressing universalist themes with startlingly honest warmth and hope.

On Wood and Stone you get songs that would not in the least be out of place on a Donna the Buffalo album, but Campbell’s production is superior to anything on a Donna album, even Silverlined, which was made in a real commercial studio in North Carolina. “You’re Still Driving That Truck” is fascinating first because she is being gently funny (Nevins is usually hurt, angry, or beatific), and then because she sounds completely relaxed. This trend continues on “Who Would You Tell,” where her vocal swings with the beat (whereas she usually soars over and across it).

“Snowbird” feels like an authentic old-time song meant to be played on a front porch instead of on stage. The mandolin, pedal steel, fiddle, and guitars lock together as if the musicians were playing in a circle in the studio. Anyone who has followed Nevins for many years will know that she once played in an old-time combo called the Heartbeats (with June Drucker, Rose Sinclair and Beverly Smith), and that Mule to Ride included many songs like this one. The Nevins-penned fiddle tune “Nothing Really” is an actual reunion of the Heartbeats, and the two tracks are a beautiful old-time interlude in this country album.

Larry Campbell has freed up Nevins to focus on her fiddle playing in her own songs, and the consistent result on Wood and Stone (again, compared with Donna the Buffalo songs) is more complete melodic lines that more fully recall the old-time tunes that inspired them. “What Money Cannot Buy,” “The Wrong Side,” and “Stars Fell on Alabama” are like a short course in the genealogical relationship between old-time and country music. It’s not coincidental that Sinclair and Smith appear on most of these.

The distorted guitar of “Tennessee River” brings you firmly back into rock territory, and the deeply personal lyrics match this shift from a traditional to modern perspective. Not too many songwriters write completely bummed out as well as Nevins; her anger always sounds justified, and her suffering always has dignity.

The album was recorded in Levon Helm’s studio, and he appears on a couple tracks. Nevins also gets harmony vocal contributions from Teresa Williams (Campbell’s wife), Allison Moorer, and Jim Lauderdale. There’s really nothing not to like about this album and long-time fans should find Wood and Stone to be the fullest realization of Nevins’s talent that they have yet heard.

—Bill Chaisson (Trumansburg, NY)

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