It’s a funny time for Carrie Rodriguez to release an all-covers album. After all, she has only recently emerged as a singer-songwriter ready to ascend the ranks, with two well-received solo records, 2006’s Seven Angels on a Bicycle and 2008’s She Ain’t Me. Those albums themselves came after a series of albums and tours with Chip Taylor, a songwriter of legend and fortune for having written both “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning”. Rodriguez’s career was, for better or worse, entwined with Taylor for the better part of the decade, but she’s a singer and instrumentalist who certainly deserves her own recognition. And while Taylor’s songs continued to fill Seven Angels, it was encouraging to see Rodriguez writing more of her own material for She Ain’t Me, especially as it’s a stronger set of songs.
Given this momentum, her third album, Love and Circumstance, feels like a sidestep. Fortunately, it’s also a pretty terrific listen. In choosing a set of love songs to cover, Rodriguez doesn’t mess around with lesser writers, mining gems from all-time greats like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams, John Hiatt, Richard Thompson, and others. The writers are no-brainer selections, but Rodriguez demonstrates great taste with the individual song choices, avoiding, for the most part, obvious or worn-out chestnuts.
The other success here is how assured Rodriguez has grown as a vocalist, and these uniformly great songs are fitting showcases for her singing, which is another part of her evolution. She’s gone from a fiddle player who sings to a full-blown vocal interpreter who occasionally picks up the fiddle, which appears very sparingly on the new album. And she is a refreshingly honest singer, decidely unflashy in her warm, direct alto—none of the baby-bird coos, old-hag warbles, or precious-me little-girl affectations so common in female Americana artists these days. Instead, she can bring subtlety and power with equal, winning effect.
Rodriguez’s fiddle shows up just twice, and she plays electric mandolin a few more times, but this is her vocal breakthrough. It helps to have not only unimpeachable material like these songs, but also a crack band and some ace guests, like Aoife O’Donovan (from the chamber-grass band Crooked Still) on harmony vocals and the great Greg Leisz on pedal steel. For O’Donovan’s part, she and Rodriguez sound terrific melting their voices together, particularly on Lucinda’s “Steal Your Love”, a real highlight, and “When I Heard Gypsy Davy Sing”, a song written by Carrie’s father, David. It’s a lovely tribute to her dad, beautifully arranged, as Leisz’s steel and Hal Holzen’s guitars wash and tumble over Eric Platz’s brushed snare.
Other highlights include lead single “Big Love”, shimmering Americana written by the John Hiatt/Nick Lowe/Ry Cooder tandem, Buddy and Julie Miller’s “Wide River to Cross”, featuring Buddy himself with his trademark grizzled harmonies, and Richard Thompson’s “Waltzing’s For Dreamers”, showcasing Rodriguez’s twangiest vocals and her own breezy fiddle break. Love and Circumstance isn’t likely to raise Carrie’s overall stature, given the sheer glut of rootsy cover albums that see release every year, but with this record’s stately production (Lee Townsend at the knobs), song selection, and Carrie’s own poised vocals, it’s a highly listenable affair that will serve admirably to tide us over until next time.