The songs on Anna Vogelzang’s new album, Canary in a Coal Mine, are disarmingly simple in their approach. From lullaby opener “Undertow”, to the dueling imagery of placidity and explosiveness in “Volcanoes”, to clear-eyed closer “Birdfeeders”, each set of images feels fresh and understated. “I come home broken, bruised like a peach / You make a fruit pie, and two whiskeys neat—like summertime,” she intones on the opening track, setting the stage for an album packed with surprising turns and meaningful moments.
The exquisite lyrical craftsmanship on Canary in a Coal Mine is matched by Vogelzang’s incredible vocal range, evoking everyone from Regina Spektor to Ani DiFranco, shifting between delicate lilt and evocative howl at will. Behind her vocals is a series of strong arrangements and musical performances from a stable of incredible performers; personnel from the Hold Steady, Dresden Dolls, and Blondie collaborate to create a full-bodied folk-pop sound that few albums this year—folk, pop, or otherwise—will match.
Vogelzang writes mainly about relationships. “Texas” is a near-acapella opera of heartbreak that Amanda Palmer is kicking herself for not writing first. “One & Only” is a folk/doo-wop hybrid love song with trumpets and multi-tracked vocals that’s just as crazy as it sounds, and twice as awesome. “When You Go” is about the inevitability of leaving, and “Whiskey Drawn” is a sly kiss-off to a former lover: “You will never own the stars / Sad moonshine eyes in every bar - so keep drinkin’.” Whether inviting her exes to alcoholism or sweetly recalling new affections, Vogelzang doesn’t idealize or demonize relationships. Her tales of lost love and future hope are like photographs, a series of objects, shades, and colors presented in beautiful, objective detail. It’s for the viewer to determine what everything means. To me, Vogelzang’s songwriting is much like that canary in a coal mine: representative of hope and disaster in equal measure.