It shouldn’t take a shelter-at-home order to indulge in your hi-fi, but with the venues quiet (for now), it’s an ideal time to sit still with your best speakers or headphones, and savor the wealth of recorded music released so far in this young and troubled year. I noticed a star cluster of new albums by leading roots women whose voices and musical auras are especially serene and fortifying. They include veterans returning to the field, top acoustic artists and an anticipated newcomer. Here is an introduction to five recordings that will be among the year’s most important work.
Sierra Hull - 25 Trips
Sierra Hull’s 2016 album Weighted Mind marked a career pivot from the breezy youth-grass of a teenager (albeit one who played the mandolin like Paganini and sang beyond her years) to a writer/auteur brimming with confidence and mature grace. Four busy years later, 25 Trips gives us the best of both chapters, which is to say thoughtful songwriting plus ambitious musicianship and sonic surprises. The first show-stopper is “How Long,” which builds to a roaring newgrass flow with astonishing picking by Hull, fiddler Stuart Duncan and banjo player Justin Moses, another young phenom who happens to be Hull’s husband. The title track offers slippery acoustic jazz fusion as a backdrop to dreamy vocals that ponder the relentlessness of the passing years. Time is the dominant theme of this 13-song collection; she’s sporting a giant watch on the cover, after all. “Waiting” grooves deeply, with earfuls of swirling instrumental color. The set ends with the delicate “Father Time.” Hull herself has been on 28 trips around the sun, and she’s clearly making the most of it.
The Secret Sisters - Saturn Return
Laura and Lydia Rogers of northern Alabama burst on the scene in 2010 with producers T Bone Burnett and Dave Cobb believing in and bolstering their natural gifts. The Secret Sisters’ authentic emotional power has never been in doubt, but the second half of the decade sent them on a career roller coaster that pushed them to personal and financial depths. Enter Brandi Carlile who invested in their resurrection with the amazing You Don’t Own Me Anymore in 2017. The team headed back to Carlile’s home studio in Washington state to build on that musical momentum with Saturn Return. The title is a cool astronomical allusion to the planet’s 29.5 year orbital period, which the women imbue with change and renewal. They were one Saturn Return old while having babies, reorienting their lives and writing these typically powerful songs. “Silver” riles up an old English ballad kind of melody into a roots rocker that pays homage to matriarchs and the wisdom of motherhood. “Late Bloomer” swoons with empathy as it holds life’s precious gifts up to the light. “Cabin” is darker and defiant narrative that speaks the long-term damage of sexual abuse. Some new ideas took hold in production here, leaning away from the strictures of a harmony vocal duo, putting each sister in her own light as the project surveys the peaks and valleys of life.
Katie Pruitt - Expectations
Those of us who’ve fallen for and believed in Katie Pruitt in recent years haven’t had expectations so much as hopes and dreams for this prodigious Nashville-based talent. After a couple of stabs at getting established, the 25-year-old now has a team that’s put her on a national stage. Pruitt blows the moment away with this debut on Rounder Records, which strikes me as the first great Americana album of 2020. It matches deeply vulnerable storytelling with surprising musical grandeur and a fully-wrought tone that ties the ten songs together, not to mention gorgeous album art. Raised in a conservative Catholic family in Georgia, Pruitt had to fight a personal war to emerge as a proud young gay woman, and that provides deeply pondered material for this suite of self-discovery. Opener “Wishful Thinking” reveals Pruitt’s command of the electric guitar and her honeyed, hooky voice. That much we anticipated. She crafts her lines with smoky care and clean tones. But what I didn’t see coming was the soaring, soul-penetrating vocal climax, here and throughout. Brandi Carlile is no longer alone among Americana women who can hit money notes like a pop diva. Even better songwriting awaits later in the disc. “Georgia” directly recounts the emotional weight of carrying her secret around and then away from her hometown and her family, and it’s an absolute stunner. Pruitt looks at both sides of those clouds though, which gives us “Loving Her,” as liberating a love song as you’ll ever hear.
Sarah Harmer - Are You Gone
For a time in late 2000, I listened to Sarah Harmer’s solo debut album You Were Here to an almost unhealthy degree, certainly at the expense of my job reviewing, you know, a variety of music. I came to learn I was part of a cultish fan base who find her gifts for cool tunes and forward motion simply irresistible. After releasing a string of acclaimed indie folk and Americana projects, Harmer turned her attention to high-level regional environmental activism. So it’s been a decade of waiting for new music, and Are You Gone marks a rekindled romance for some of us. This is the hardest rocking and spikiest among the recordings reviewed here, evidenced by “New Lows,” a bewitching and throbbing admixture of icy disdain for corruption and an against-all-odds call to activist arms. “Take Me Out” has a wilderness freshness and the close harmony vocals that’s long mde Harmer’s sonics so absorbing. Piano pauses Harmer’s guitar chops for a subtle emotional climax in “The Lookout,” where the bonds with place and people feel in tension with one another. If you’re not already in the tribe of this Ontario visionary, this is a great first impression before you go through the catalog.
Jill Andrews - Thirties
Out this coming Friday, Thirties is the newest of these albums and the third full length album of Jill’s career. But that’s deceiving, because she became an Americana star as half of Knoxville-based folk band the everybodyfields in the 2000s, as well as a regular collaborator in acts like Hush Kids, her duo with Peter Groenwald. That said, this Nashville-based artist has grown in all ways through her 30s, as this thematic album demonstrates. Her sonic purview is wider, her beats more crisp and danceable, her songwriting ever more engaging, and I certainly felt undercurrents of Taylor Swift and Kacey Musgraves in this mature, delicious song cycle. The subject matter is divorce, stumbles through the romantic wilderness, raising daughters and finding new love. “The Party” was an early, anchoring song, she’s said, that delves into the loneliness that can attend single motherhood. “Give Me The Beat Back” is a briskly grooving piece about how friends can lift one up in hard times. “River Swimming” glimmers with faith in the life cycles that bring love back around in time. Throughout, we bask, like swimmers, in the soft, pure tones of Jill’s much admired voice. The project has a companion book of short memoir sketches that bring specificity to the storyline and creative portrait photography by Fairlight Hubbard. Jill will talk about this project and more on a coming episode of WMOT’s The String.