You’d be forgiven for not recognising the name, but American singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer is actually no newcomer at all – since beginning her career on the US folk circuit thirty years ago with folk group Stone Soup, with whom she released two albums in the 1980s, Newcomer has released some nine studio LPs, a live album and a retrospective set, all on independent US labels. The trend continues with tenth studio album Before & After, her first release for Rounder, which reveals her to be a singer of impressive richness and a writer of solid folk-pop tunes.
It’s the voice that really pulls you in with its smoky sophistication; it’s a little bit kd lang, a little bit Judee Sill, and sometimes a little bit Nanci Griffith, radiating with a country warmth. Deep and strong, it’s works especially well on songs like these, which are mostly direct and, as Newcomer herself says, “fearlessly uncluttered”. They all operate within a tasteful acoustic setting, with guitars and piano providing the foundation for her pretty, nostalgic, country-inspired melodies.
‘Before & After’, a duet with Mary Chapin Carpenter, sets the tone as an elegant slice of Americana but doesn’t coast on rafts of bland platitudes; lyrics like “I have lived on fumes and religious cornflakes” give the song a pleasingly quirky touch. The following ‘Ghost Trains’, meanwhile, is the product of a challenge from Newcomer’s daughter to write a song based on whatever a ‘random’ search of Wikipedia threw up, and turns out to be an album highlight – the best kind of mid-tempo coffeehouse strum, recalling both Sill and Bound By The Beauty-era Jane Siberry in its melodic construction and vocal phrasing.
Elsewhere, the arrangements sometimes break out of their refined guitar/piano setup. The lilting ‘I Do Not Know Its Name’ gets off to a vaguely exotic start with some Latin percussion, and ‘Coy Dogs’ finds a place for some ghostly guitar lines, while ‘A Simple Change Of Heart’, with its ear-candy overlaying vocal harmonies, and the more spacious melody and arrangement utilised in ‘Do No Harm’ add up to other highlights.
Before & After does sometimes suffer dips in quality as the abundance of pretty acoustic numbers pile up; songs like the dreamy ‘Stones In The River’ and the more stripped-back ‘If Not Now’ are fine as standalone songs, but fail to dazzle in the context of a record that is unfailingly pleasant. The list of country fairs in ‘I Wish I May, I Wish I Might’ is rather on the twee side, while ‘Hush’ threatens to spill over into sickly-sweet territory with its “Sparrows fall and sparrows fly / and we may not ever know why” lyric, only for the loveliness of its melody and intricate harmonies to save it.
There is no such redemption, however, for bonus closer ‘A Crash Of Rhinoceros’, which passes muster as a novelty children’s song but jars at the close of the album; the effect is akin to Joni Mitchell adding her lighthearted reading of the Lambert Hendricks & Ross standard ‘Twisted’ at the end of Court & Spark, only without the flair, sophistication, or winning humour.
Aside from these late-album missteps, Before & After works well as a pleasant, enjoyable listen; it’s not groundbreaking or especially original, but Newcomer’s rich, distinctive voice and her often unusual way with a lyric mark it out as a record worth investigation.
[Rounder; March 15, 2010]