Rare is the contemporary American folk record that doesn’t sound as tight and polished as a river stone. Too often great songwriters collect excellent material and then turn it all into a slick, pseudo-pop effort, alienating their potential folk-music fans while impressing few others. Much of this can be chalked up to the occasional popular success of folkies who’ve managed to score megahits—Shawn Colvin’s “Sonny Came Home” or Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” spring to mind—with material that had been worked out in smoky cafés in the Village. The sense is that if you head out to Hugh’s Room to hear it live, the material will be acoustic, spare, and unadulterated. But, on the record, it’ll be beefed up with drums, bass, harmonies, and unimaginative guitar solos from session guys. As a steadfast follower of the American singer-songwriter tradition, I have stacks of such overproduced records, full of extraordinary songs, that I never play (I am looking at you, Lucy Kaplansky, Richard Shindell, and David Wilcox).
Patty Larkin, for decades among the two or three most dynamic artists in the East Coast folk scene, is the classic triple threat. A smoky, sultry vocalist, a witty and evocative songwriter, and a brilliant guitarist, Larkin can do it all. Now in her mid-50s, she has returned after a five-year layoff (during which she produced La Guitara, a collection displaying top-shelf women guitarists) with a record that seems designed, at long last, to throw out that unhappy expectation of slick production. Instead, here is a record so spare and honest, so underburdened with activity and distraction, that the simple, lucid passion behind each of the twelve compositions is amplified, exaggerated. This is, finally, what contemporary folk music wants to sound like when it doesn’t.
Watch the Sky (produced, performed, and written by Larkin) is a showcase for her dynamic, wide-ranging talents. She plays no fewer than eleven instruments (including drum loops, lapsteel, bazouki and, with a wink to indie rockers everywhere, a toy organ), and each song is like an exercise in another genre, another voice. This isn’t parody, nor is it derivative, exactly; it’s more like a master exploring the possibilities of the form, paying homage to her contemporaries and friends. The brave opening number (“Phone Message”) drones and loops, establishing the tone; the naked, foreboding “Cover Me” recalls the dreaminess of Gillian Welch; “Beautiful” is a bluesy rave-up reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt; “Walking in my Sleep” wouldn’t be out of place on an Ani DiFranco record; and the quite unforgettable “Hallelujah” is a Daniel Lanois song by another. But, ultimately, it’s all Larkin. The nods and winks are just that—hints of influence, shades of tribute.
An impressive career peak for one of the best.