[24 March 2011]
It’s been a long time coming for American songstress Carrie Elkin. Releasing her debut album 15 years ago (1996’s Simplicity), she’s been honing her craft ever since, drawing equally on neo-traditional country, rural Appalachian folk, and rootsy, abrasive rock’n’roll with occasional avant-garde leanings.
Elkin’s itchy feet have seen her move quite a lot around the States, but her current location is the musical melting pot Austin, Texas, where she lives with musician and frequent collaborator Danny Schmidt. Shortly after arriving in Austin, she self-released, as she had with all her albums up till then, The Jeopardy of Circumstance. The album received rave reviews in the US and the UK, and landed her a deal with folk label Red House Records, which has a diverse roster of artists, including heavyweights like Jorma Kaukonen, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Loudon Wainwright III, and newcomers like the Wailin’ Jennys and Ruth Moody and hubbie Danny Schmidt. “Where roots meet the here and now…” reads the label’s slogan, a perfect fit for Elkin, and hopefully the label will be a springboard for her considerable talents.
Call It My Garden is stylistically varied and marked by different moods throughout. From pretty straight, banjo-led, bluegrass tunes, through richly harmonized country songs and dark and shadowy rock ballads to lingering, quite beautiful lullabies (the fragile “Dear Sam”, written for musical friend Sam Baker who contributes to the album and sings harmony vocals on the track).
The album is likewise by turns happy and sad, flaky and serious, Elkin channeling quite a wide emotional spectrum. The opening track, “Jesse Likes Birds”, is a fine testimony to the album as a whole, beginning with lighthearted bluegrassy strum and a similarly innocent listing of what named Jessie likes (“wind”, “water”, “kids”). Suddenly he/she likes drugs and the mood shifts abruptly. You begin to suspect that the song is some harrowing tale about a drug abuser set to a deliberately upbeat tune, a la Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”. But no, no, as Elkin explains on her website: “This is a sweet little ditty I wrote for a wonderful songwriter, Jesse DeNatale. We friended each other on MySpace some time ago and I took a peek at his list of “influences.” It seems he has a SLEW of them. His list was incredibly sweet. And funny.” So much for the anticipated drama. It must be me.
Not that Elkins doesn’t travel down that road. “Berlin”, for instance, is a slow-building song where Elkin’s voice shines, the delivery heart wrenching and passionate, at turns fragile whisper and raspy shout. “Shots Rang Out” is a similarly weighty track, telling of some horrendous domestic situations, supported by dark and rumbling, abstract guitar playing. But in songs like “St. Louis”, a somewhat lyrical centrepiece for the record, all the stylistic strands come together. Here, Elkin talks about her garden and subtly mentions Schmidt as her “man of many moons”, the title of his recently released record.
What makes this album worthwhile, though, first and foremost, is Elkin’s voice. It’s beautiful, but in a “blue collarish” way, and capable of translating all kinds of emotions in a truthful and quite affecting manner. A long time coming… but it seems that Elkin has finally arrived.