Award-winning Canadian singer-songwriter offers up a fifth album of mainly simple, plainspoken pleasures.
Born in Newfoundland and based in Halifax, Amelia Curran won a 2010 Juno award (Canada’s equivalent to the Grammy) for Roots and Traditional Album of the Year by a solo artist for her fifth release, Hunter, Hunter. As that category name implies, Hunter, Hunter is an album made out of non-electric properties: a voice, occasionally accompanied by others, an acoustic guitar and the occasional flashes of accordion, bouzouki, piano, dobro, percussion and, in its flashier moments, horns. As a writer and performer, though, any tradition that Curran belongs to is much closer to the realm of the New Folk singer-songwriter than a revival of any classic traditions that stretch back further than Joni Mitchell. This is not meant as a criticism of Curran, but rather an observation that her music, instead of harkening back to any of the kind of communal, political, or storytelling conventions that are associated with roots and tradition, is instead personal and introspective, with a focus on her own here and now.
Still, in the 21st century, post-Lilith Fair, female singer-songwriter environment, perhaps it is enough that Hunter, Hunter comes largely unadorned with studio production techniques or any blatant attempts at pop crossover appeal to mark Curran as something of a traditionalist. Her vocals, a mix of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s plainspoken sophistication and Beth Neilsen Chapman’s calm, emotive warmth, are strong and clear yet tastefully restrained and free of any kind of quirk. Her lyrics are usually wise and casually insightful, though aside from some clever wordplay here (“You had me by the Bible / And you had me by the belt”) and there (“We send the silver lining to the cloud”), rarely do much to call attention to themselves, instead more content to blend in seamlessly with the quiet flicker of the music. Essentially, Curran’s talent and command of modern folk idioms is strong enough to please open minded purists, but neither is her music rustic enough that most of these songs would sound completely out of place if used, as music like this inevitably is, as aural wallpaper on the latest CW teen drama.
Hunter, Hunter is generally at its best when Curran focuses her music on the voice-and-acoustic-guitar standard that she obviously excels at. Opener “Bye Bye Montreal” sparkles with hard-won wisdom and wistful could-have-beens, an accordion adding mournful sighs to the song’s spare but lovely melody. The spry, up tempo “Hands on a Grain of Sand” and the smooth, graceful “Ah Me” add unobtrusive but effective twang to similarly measured songs that does little to upset the overall atmosphere. It is not until the fourth song in, on the mildly bluesy acoustic shuffle “The Mistress”, that Curran begins to offer up any real variation, but here it feels welcome. The song’s smartly complex first person narrative of its disgraced yet headstrong title character (“There’s a war between the parts of me / The evil and the good”) is easily reminiscent of the collision between the vulnerability and defiance that Chrissie Hynde displayed in the Pretenders’ similarly themed “The Adulteress”, but nevertheless offers up Curran’s most vivid lyric writing on the record.
If “The Mistress” displays what Curran can pull off when she nudges her music just a bit in any one left-of-center direction, some of her other experiments are less successful. The mid-section of Hunter, Hunter in general includes a few moments that are burdened by a little too much ornamentation. Imposing on “The Company Store” a jazzy cool and a busy mess of percussion clatter, or pre-rock-era “bah bah bah” backing vocals on “The Dozens”, feels like overreaching in an attempt to add a bit of variety to the collection. Even a much less ostentatious piece like “Mad World, Outlive Me” feels like it might be trying too hard to change up the pace of the album a little, albeit in this case by slowing down to a dirge-like pace that, although more congruent with its surroundings, still does the album no favours.
Still, such moments tend to be quickly forgotten when placed alongside the easy jaunt of “Julia” or the becalmed, dramatic “Tiny Glass Houses”, the latter fleshed out with stately piano underpinnings that demonstrate, as her jazzier turns on the album do not, how Curran can utilize instrumental seasoning to helpful effect. Better still is “Wrecking Ball”, which, although not a cover of the Neil Young song that Emmylou Harris already provided the definitive interpretation of on her album of the same name, is every bit as elemental in its simple nursery rhyme-like melody as something that Neil would write. However, if Emmylou is ever going to cover anything on this record, it will definitely be the gospel-tinged ballad “Love’s Lost Regard”. Finally, and fittingly, “Last Call” is a sad, shuffling barroom ballad rich with dancing shadows and “red-faced prophets”, bringing Hunter, Hunter to a sturdy close that is properly evocative of this occasionally awkward and imperfect, yet heartfelt and observant record’s many highlights.