The warmly evocative portrait of Patty Larkin on the sleeve of this epic, two-disc retrospective is a detail from a photo in which she wears what seems to be a favourite hooded jumper, pulled half over her face, framing her eyes, the cuffs stretched over her hands. Listening in, it seems this is also how she inhabits her songs, cosily, like memories and old friends. Her comfort zone has always been pretty intimate, so it’s perhaps surprising that she opened up her world to include twenty-five friends — one for each song on the album, one for each year she’s been in the music biz. And what an illustrious list of friends it is, including such hugely respected artists as Shawn Colvin, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Suzanne Vega, Rosanne Cash, Bruce Coburn and Peter Mulvey to name but a few.
The folk tradition of making music as a community is at the core of the genre; however, instead of making the collaborations a physical part of her recording process, Larkin chose to give her friends and colleagues total artistic freedom to do whatever they wanted to do on her songs. The result is an interesting twist in the world of musical exchange; left to their own devices, each participant simply sent their additional recordings back to Larkin for approval and any finishing touches they might need. ‘Lately’ is a brilliantly inventive example of this; one of Larkin’s early recordings, the song is revamped with a delightful whistling opening section from Martin Sexton that shifts into an earnest yet rootsy vocal duet (perhaps rendered all the more special due to Sexton’s recent stroke)
Ultimately, though, it’s hard to settle on individual highlights. ‘Cranes’ with David Wilcox, who records in his own right as Folk Road Dog, is unabashedly simple and intensely beautiful. ‘The Only One”, a duet with Jonatha Brooke (a singer-songwriter of similar ilk to Larkin), is a joy with a delightful strand of pure vocals trailing in the background and a tinkle of toy piano from Brooke. Bruce Coburn adds some yearning harmony vocals on ‘Open Arms’, while Erin McKeown followed the open remit to the letter on ‘Beautiful’, singing the whole song with added organ and breathy, percussive vocal beats. It’s really the artists who seem to go beyond the standard duet concept that take the songs to another level, and their inspiration really shines through.
When the 25 project first started, Larkin consulted her mother about the songs (all love songs, gentle yet gritty, with not a drop of syrup, the majority having aged not a bit) and artists she was thinking of including; terminally ill, her mother – whom Larkin has said was her biggest fan – was worried about her daughter being alone. By way of an indirect homage, then, Larkin took strength in continuing the project after she died, and has since said she wished it had been her fiftieth anniversary so that she could have had even more friends participate. On the basis of this, a volume two would not go amiss.
[Signature Sounds; March 15, 2010]