It’s hard to deny what Storyhill lay down on Shade of the Trees—sparse, meditative folk songs fueled by nothing but the acoustic guitars and fragile harmonies of Chris Cunningham and John Hermanson. Their second album for St. Paul, Minnesota’s famed roots music label Red House finds the two old friends taking more of a purist’s approach to familiar territory, eschewing the well-produced sound of their former album for the serene tranquility of live studio recording and a “back-to-basics” approach. It doesn’t feel like Dan Wilson—a Minneapolis music scene fixture in his own right—had to do too much for his production duties but sit back and let the songs unfold.
Then again, that could be a testament to how deft his touch is in bringing this intimate material to life. The duo sounds effortless and unassuming in the way they play off one another on these disarmingly pretty songs, which balance introspective lyrics with allusions to historical eras and figures, finding a common ground between the personal and the universal. The title itself is drawn from Stonewall Jackson’s last words, as he was wartorn and on the verge of dying from pneumonia, and the two get a lot of mileage out of this imagery on “Better Angels”. Shade of the Trees is just as enjoyable when it picks up the pace a bit on tracks that show off the pair’s picking ability, like the free-wheelin’ “Town Talks”, which paints a picture of a small town where gossip runs rampant. Storyhill has been around since the ‘80s, cultivating a fanbase around their Twin Cities focal point and beyond, but it seems that just now they’re making the most timeless music of their career.