Louise Taylor: Written in Red
by George Graham
(Signature Sounds 1259 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/31/2000)
The proliferation of good singer-songwriters from the New Folk scene has encouraged artists in the genre to experiment with combining various influences. Although the music, by definition, is focussed on the lyrical content, adding unexpected stylistic ingredients can make the music much more interesting. Sometimes that musical amalgamation can be fairly subtle but still make for more absorbing listening. This week we have another of the numerous New England-based New Folk artists who meld good intelligent songs with a mixture of seemingly familiar influences that ends up sounding fresh. Louise Taylor's new release, her fourth, is called Written In Red.
Louise Taylor is based in Vermont and started her career at age 16 when she left home and set off as an itinerant musician and laborer. Over the years, she has been connecting with ever wider audiences and finding fans among other songwriters. Her plentiful travel experiences have found their way into some of her songs starting with her 1992 self-released debut CD Looking for Rivers, and including an album produced by Windham Hill Records founder William Ackerman.
Her new CD, like its 1997 predecessor Ride was co-produced by another New England folkie Peter Gallway.
One of the unexpected influences that Ms. Taylor has brought into her music over the years is the blues -- and her previous album had appearances by another bluesy folkster Chris Smither. This time, Canadian blues man Ray Bonneville appears on Written in Red. Since the making of her last album, Ms. Taylor travelled to Ireland and was taken by traditional influences there, such that they find their way into her new CD in the form of some pennywhistle and a lyrical style that hints at old Celtic or British Isles tales. Add that to Ms. Taylor's often subtly funky guitar style and the result is a singer-songwriter record on which the musical accompaniment is more than just a backdrop for the lyrics, even though the instrumentation on Written in Red is often rather sparse.
There are 12 musicians who appear on the CD at various times, but the personnel on any given track is usually just a quartet or less, and some pieces feature Ms. Taylor with only one additional player. Guests on the CD include two other singer-songwriters, co-producer Peter Gallway and Wendy Beckerman, who also contributed one song to CD. Adding the Celtic influence is Joanie Madden of the group Cherish the Ladies. The result is an album than ranges from a kind of folk funk to bluesy to Celtic. And in the singer-songwriter tradition, the poetry of the lyrics is especially worthy, with Ms. Taylor weaving oblique and sometimes allegorical narratives, as well as drawing on some traditional influences for a musical murder story.
Ms. Taylor has an earthier voice than many folkies, but she is an appealing singer, and uses that to advantage with especially on the blues-influenced songs.
That sound is especially felt on the opening track Cherry Tree, done as a duo with Ray Bonneville, who plays the harmonica and other guitar and co-wrote the song with Ms. Taylor. The somewhat cryptic lyrics are a kind of allegory for a developing relationship. <<>>
The following track Over the Mountain involves more of a band accompaniment. The lyrics are particularly interesting with the song's metaphor of the mountain capable of being interpreted as getting over any of life's hurdles, perhaps even a the death of someone close. <<>>
One of the album's more intriguing tracks is His Hands, the story of the night of a torrid relationship. The arrangement is simultaneously bluesy and atmospheric. The performance by everyone, including Seth Farber on accordion, is outstanding. <<>>
One of two songs by others who appear on the album with Ms. Taylor is Two Bends in the Road, by Ray Bonneville. The slightly gospel-influenced accompaniment frames the lyrics about a somewhat complicated relationship. <<>>
The most striking track on the CD is Miriam Bell, which has all the elements of an old traditional ballad -- sex, money and murder. It's the story of a farmer girl who falls in love with rich nobleman and apparently kills him for his money, but his will gives the riches to their illegitimate child. The instrumental backing is appropriately ominous with a pennywhistle giving an oddly Celtic touch. <<>>
Another song tinged with death is Gunny Hole the story of a treacherous waterfall in which a number of children perished. The bluesy setting is also rather unexpected but proves highly effective. <<>>
Also with some Celtic influence is My Dove whose premise is a love affair that leads to a most unhappy marriage. <<>>
The title track Written in Red is performed solo. The bluesy ballad recounts a life on the skids. <<>>
The CD ends with a song written by Wendy Beckerman, done as a jazzy waltz. While My Love Is Away fits well into the rest of the album with its interesting lyrics about separation. <<>>
Louise Taylor, over the course of three previous albums, has been attracting attention in the increasingly crowded New England singer-songwriter scene. She continues to tour extensively and also conducts workshops on creative songwriting. Her new CD Written in Red should help her to gain wider recognition. It combines great sweeping, often allegorical lyric writing with a mostly acoustic backing that nevertheless spans styles from funky blues to Celtic. Her sultry vocals and the all-around tasteful musicianship on this CD make it both appealing and substantial listening -- the kinds of songs that are easy to like the first time, and reveal new facets on each further hearing.
In terms of sound quality, the CD is generally commendable. The acoustic instrumentation is well-recorded and for the most part, there is a degree of space in both musical arrangements and recorded sound that allows the songs to ebb and flow. But as is all too depressingly common, the dynamic range of the CD is restricted, with the quieter acoustic tracks pushed to be as loud as the band songs, undermining the arrangements and to some extent Ms. Taylor's vocal expression.
New England has become a hotbed of singer-songwriters, with dozens of worthwhile new releases emerging from the scene each year. Louise Taylor's new CD Written in Red represents some of the best the genre has to offer.
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