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Martha Scanlan

The West Was Burning

(Sugar Hill; US: 13 Feb 2007; UK: 12 Feb 2007)

Martha Scanlan, formerly a member of the Reeltime Travelers, is a songwriter who sings and plays some acoustic guitar. Her lyrics are poetic and evocative, which means she is often lumped in with Lucinda Williams and other female Americana types—Amazon does, anyway, and so do a lot of other reviews. To my ears, Scanlan’s work is a lot more immediate than Williams, and a bit more lively. But the comparison is accurate enough, for those who need comparisons. Soon, though, Martha Scanlan might be the one against whom all the others are measured.


There is a lot to love about this record, so we better start right away. The album’s title track is a turning twisting country-infused waltz, constructed around an acoustic strum and some heavy thwacking drums, courtesy of Band legend Levon Helm. The song’s drive also sets up its pretty words, which tumble all over the place like sneakers in the dryer: “When all the glory you could somehow shove inside a bottle doesn’t seem to fill the empty cup inside your soul / And all the winding roads you used to follow never seem to get you halfway where you know you think you need to go”. Steel guitars and fiddles serve as country signposts, but this is a talking blues that a certain Mr. Dylan would be proud to call his own. (Scanlan also covers Dylan’s “Went to See the Gypsy” here, in a stark basic version with backing vocals by Amy Helm, Levon’s daughter.)


The musical direction here is done by Dirk Powell, a multi-instrumentalist who—if liner notes are to be believed—reveres Scanlan as a sage and a seer and a prophet. He does a beautiful job pulling it all together, and making the track’s form match up with its content. He even gets to show off a little bit with his instrumental hoedown, “Call Me Shorty”, pinioned right in the middle of the record.


If you are one of those people who thinks that lyrics can actually be poetry, this is your album. In “Up on the Divide”, Scanlan takes on the voice of a widowed rancher trying to stave off loneliness: “The grave on the hillside is long overgrown / Been twenty-two years since I gathered the stones / Twenty-two more years since I made her my bride / And the springtime’s a-coming up on the divide”. At the end, when one least expects it, this narrator slams the coal companies that are tearing up his homeland, saying that they “dig you a grave about ten acres wide”. Stunning stuff, all over the record.


Sadly, Scanlan’s voice does not really match up with her lyrics. It is tragically thin; this does not show up when she rocks out on gospel tunes like “Get Right Church”, but at other times she sounds three decades older than she actually is. Songs like the creepy protest tune “Isabella” (why did they cut off Anna Mae’s hands?) would hit a lot harder with a stronger voice on the microphone, and the folk-grass stylings of “Seeds of the Pine” have some amazing lyrics (“I only want to dream about you / The dollar I could spend but I should save”) that get lost. This too can be evocative—I personally love her voice, fatal fragility and all. But some might find it will pretty offputting.


You know what, I take it back; her voice is pretty sexy on “Walkin’”, a bluesy thing where she’s trying to seduce a cute boy she likes: “Walkin’ ain’t nothin’ / Walkin’s just for free / Come on baby, come walkin’ / With me”. Similarly, on “Set Me Up High”, she nails “coquette” instead of “crone”.


This gets a big thumbs-up for its literary words and its soulful rootsiness. Those who hate folk music, or who get offended by a singer who does not have the greatest voice in the world, need not apply. But you’ll be missing out. By a lot.

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Martha Scanland & band live
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