[4 June 2012]
Of all the countless genres of music, Americana is arguably one of the most affective and honest. More often than not, its music acts as a warm, pleasant backdrop to emotive voices that tell of everyday troubles and simple yet profound losses. In essence, storytelling is key, and on their debut LP, Take the Air, folk songstress Jenn Rawling and string player Basho Parks make for a duo with admirable narrative prowess. While their scope might be a bit limited (as is usually the case with this style), they ensure that each track is full of intriguing melodies and appropriately somber and tasteful musicianship.
The duo met while performing with other acts around Portland over the last few years. Ironically and almost simultaneously, they both suffered wrist injuries that threatened to end their career. However, they decided to keep going, and now they’ve become romantically and musically entangled. Parks surmises their situation by saying, “Ours is a story of triumph in the face of adversity. Real phoenix-rising kind of stuff.” As for Take The Air, they explain their intentions poetically, saying that it “marries musical and lyrical imagery, with repetitive figures that subtly shift accent and meaning like sunlight gleaming from a stream.” Bonded by a love of countryside painting, nature, and colloquial narratives, they’ve ensured that every second of Take The Air radiates with organic, familial truth.
Opener “Big Old Lake” is probably the album’s most immediately accessible track. Rawling shares more than just a similar character with Sarah McLachlan as she sings her sorrowful, catchy melody. Parks’ string arrangements are reserved and subtly beautiful, and the standup bass and percussion (courtesy of guest musicians) shuffle along at a calm tempo. The harmonies are especially endearing. “Whistle Bird” feels like a female-fronted and sparser take on the Fleet Foxes, while “Old Delia”, with its banjo and athematic chorus, is like a lost track from the Decemberists, pre-Picaresque. It’s all so sublime.
The melancholic melody, dynamic vocal layers and restrained horns help make “Hug You Hug” a highlight, and the chamber pop folksiness of “Lonely Owl” guarantees a hypnotic maze of serene regret. While “Tidal” is a fairly quiet piece overall, the interlocking strings at the end make for quite a captivating conclusion. “Little Swallow” is an upbeat track perfect for a hoedown, and it provides a bit of musical sunshine to juxtapose the thematic cloudiness that pervades over Take the Air. Finally, “Leavin’ So Soon”, as you can probably guess, recalls the desperation and heartache the duo has channeled so well already. As opposed to most of the album, this track features pretty a basic construction—just an acoustic guitar, light percussion, and the great duality of Rawling and Parks’ voices. Although its production is low-key, its emotional resonance is quite palpable.
Take the Air is a thoroughly charming and identifiable record. Although it doesn’t offer a lot of variety (the same timbres are used in similar ways), its cohesiveness and humane sentiments make it instantly likeable. It’s an album that captures a setting and scene perfectly, and if you’re ever wandering a field or deserted road as the sun rises and your mind races with nostalgia and remorse, this will definitely be a suitable soundtrack.