Folk singer-songwriter Caroline Herring’s keening alto and hummingbird vibrato will grab you hard on her blisteringly beautiful new album, Golden Apples of the Sun. With refreshingly spare production—little can be found here but her voice and intricate acoustic fingerpicking—Herring follows up last year’s acclaimed Lantana with another intimate and commanding set. Where Golden Apples diverges from Herring’s other records is her reliance on outside material, which makes this album a step sideways of sorts, presumably while Herring stores up more originals for her next offering. Still, Herring proves again she is a performer of remarkable skill who deserves a spot among contemporary folk’s brightest lights, and like other talented folk singers, she is an interpreter par excellence of other writers’ material.
Not all of it works perfectly, given Herring’s determination to radically rewrite famous melodies. “True Colors”, the Cyndi Lauper hit, falls flat, for instance, as Herring alters the very melody that made the song special in the first place. Furthermore, it is not clear why we need an umpteenth version of “Long Black Veil”, and again, Herring changes the tune into a nearly unrecognizable banjo frailer. “See See Rider” works better—it is such a surprising pick to begin with—and she turns it into a rolling hymn, surely the prettiest version of this song ever. Then again, for all of her tinkering with covers, her version of Joni Mitchell’s “Cactus Tree” is essentially an impersonation, which, of course, means it is gorgeous. Allowing Herring to indulge in a few of her favorite tunes is fine, but the stunning originals here like “Tales of the Islander” and “The Great Unknown” are the record’s real high points, which should point the way forward for a singer-songwriter at the very top of the field.