by Sophia Hernandez
It’s always exciting when Pitchfork posts a new album review – even for a vinyl record manufacturer. Check out this Record Pressing LP that has recently made it on the noteworthy site!
When the buzz cycle moves so quickly that it seems to take multiple Twitter streams and searches to keep track of the day’s best new bands, describing a piece of music as “mature” feels more like scorn than praise. Who’s got time to appreciate hard-earned, time-shaped wisdom, after all, when there are so many mp3s through which to wade? And what is craftsmanship when some dude in Topeka’s just landed half a keyboard hook and a little bit of wit in his bedroom, and it’s already streaming on Bandcamp? That’s not to criticize the music that’s being made so much as the way we’ve come to treat it– anonymous bits of data that can be downloaded, scanned, and discarded before the song’s actually over. It’s all first impressions and quick fixes.
Give Sharron Kraus’ excellent fourth album, The Woody Nightshade, a cursory listen, and you likely won’t hear much but a pretty voice pleading about old lovers over drums and dulcimers, guitars and autoharps. But The Woody Nightshade, Kraus’ first for the Portland, Ore., label Strange Attractors, is a mature statement by an artist who has developed steadily since her debut nine years ago. As such, it should be handled with the same patience and attention with which it seems to have been made. Here, Kraus’ tales of love and loss come graced by the wisdom of experience, with youthful impulses tempered by acknowledgement and empathy. The eight-piece band that delivers these tunes alongside Kraus handles them with restraint and imagination, turning her folk-based tunes into carefully crafted meditations. Listen closely, and Kraus’ prepossessing songs deliver real-life takeaways.
Kraus has been busy during the last decade, not only recording her solo albums, including 2008′s The Fox’s Wedding, but also collaborating– with fellow female folk-benders Helena Espvall and Meg Baird, with folk reconstructionist Christian Kiefer, and finally as the superb Tau Emerald with Tara Burke. And, at its best, The Woody Nightshade sounds highly collaborative, like the work of its nine musicians laboring over Kraus’ tunes and taking unexpected chances. The glowing drone that opens the record, for instance, perfectly fills the space between Kraus’ droll lament and her steady guitar pluck. “Heaviness of Heart” is appropriately spooky, too, with madrigal harmonies hanging between Kraus’ quaver and the bass-drum percussion of a funeral march. Kraus’ arrangements used to be a tad predictable, putting the tools of Appalachian and British folk toward familiar ends; here, in serpentine guitar figures and rich textures, she finds her own forms.
There’s nothing complicated or fancy about Kraus’ writing, but each of Nightshade’s 10 tunes presents another angled look at love. “Once”, as its title might suggest, renders a familiar portrait of love faded, coupled with the hope to revive it, while “Two Brothers” makes Kraus’ heart and head decide between two “remarkable brothers,” one fair and one solemn. The title track portrays the struggle to forgive betrayal and move forward, though opener “Nothing” attempts to move forward after a lover leaves, like a prisoner finally freed of his shackle. Kraus details love for a young, wide-eyed adventurer in “Story”, concern for selfish and misguided kin in “Evergreen Sisters”. These detailed, poignant tales combine to paint a portrait of Kraus as a sort of mentor, a survivor delivering her perils and lessons with a precise pen.
No anecdote or bit of advice here works better than “Rejoice in Love”, though, a magnetic little pop mantra about taking what you can get and not fretting too much. “Some people are dependable/ Some people are so likable,” Kraus sings, her sudden perkiness countered by hints of surprise and cynicism. “But when we love them/ That’s not the reason why.” It’s the sort of advice a grandmother might deliver, having lived long enough to know that, though love can be twisted and tragic, it’s worth every risk and reward. It’s a mature idea, then, the sort that still works every time this worthwhile record spins.
— Grayson Currin, March 4, 2011