For every Richard and Linda Thompson, there seems to be a Robin and Linda Williams. While the Thompsons were creating great albums at the height of their personal quagmire, Robin and Linda Williams have continued making music together for over 30 years. The duo’s last album, Visions of Love, was warmly received by anyone who had the good sense to seek it out. And for a couple that has worked with everyone from Iris DeMent to humorist Garrison Keillor, they certainly know what makes their music so simple but yet so inviting.
The opener, “Whippoorwill”, has Robin starting off behind a basic acoustic guitar as Linda complements him with her banjo. The harmonies are very tight, with Robin’s voice gliding over Linda’s nicely. It’s more of a mountain tune along the lines of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, but there isn’t as much twang or talk about murder. Ambling along and in no hurry to get anywhere, the song shines on a bridge that picks things up (but not by much), guitar and banjo working in unison. “October Light” has a tad more urgency to it as the tempo and tone builds from the mandolin-heavy intro. Sounding as if they’ve done this song before, but not to the point of losing interest, the number has a certain toe-tapping quality without much percussion. A guitar accents certain lines quite well.
Most of the songs blend a bit of Celtic with pure “mountain” melodies, but Robin and Linda take a slight detour on the rambling and rollicking “Clarkfield”, which has some fine picking and finer songwriting. You get the impression that they’d still be doing this regardless of how successful they would eventually end up. The song has a bit of bluegrass but isn’t exactly Ricky Skaggs or Bill Monroe. It’s just a concise yet engaging number that has everything going for it, particularly the blazing mandolin near the end of the bridge. “Leaving This Land” changes gears somewhat as Linda takes lead on this slower, reflective ditty. A highlight is the harmonies courtesy of Iris DeMent. The sparseness of the arrangement also draws the listener in. It’s as if they’re recording it around one microphone.
A lot of these tunes would also be in line with Steve Earle’s work on either Train a Comin’ or later on with Del McCoury on The Mountain. The tender and catchy “Home, No. 235”, a song about a house not necessarily being home, builds slowly but works brilliantly, bringing to mind the Be Good Tanyas. Mary Chapin Carpenter adds deft harmonies, not impeding on Linda’s lead but only adding the finishing soft touches. It also has a verse which could sum up the duo’s history thus far: “So we’re here and there, then we’re there and gone / Forever passing through / Riding on the wings of some old song / We hold on tight, me and you”. This is one-upped by the cute “Old Plank Road”, a traditional sounding song that is brand new. Possibly the oddest moment comes from the harmonies, which include Carpenter and Sissy Spacek. Yes, that Sissy Spacek!
The second half of this record generally offers up more of the same, kicking off with Robin giving a good performance on the low-key “Used to Be”, which could be mistaken for something from Alison Krauss and Union Station. But “I’m Just Glad You’re Gone” doesn’t measure up for some reason as Linda leads. It’s a quaint tune, but sounds way back in the mix for some reason, not as crisp or strong as earlier songs that covers this ground better. Fortunately, “Annie” brings things back up to snuff, a sweet and tender track that captures the tandem at its core—harmonizing and playing the instruments that got them going in the coffeehouses in the early ‘70s. It’s Buddy and Julie Miller without the amplifiers.
After a lengthy medley, the album closes with the poignant “Lost Little Children”. This is definitely another album that only adds to their solid and well-crafted work thus far.
// Notes from the Road
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