All that time Baird spent with other musicians' work on Dear Companion has paid off. Here, we get closer to her and her songs, and that is more than enough.
On her first album, Dear Companion, Meg Baird -- also of the band, Espers -- was not just a solo artist, she was solitary. That companion she speaks of in the title was the songs, most of them covers or traditional folk tunes. The album used only her voice and her guitar (or dulcimer) and the results were beautiful, if accidentally confessional. We learn about Baird on that album by stumbling upon her singing those songs. It doesn't feel crafted for an audience but rather for Baird herself.
Seasons on Earth shifts that focus, though, and the results are equally beautiful. Baird loses nothing in stepping out here, in acknowledging us as listeners, as part of the music. She brings in other players too, and the songs grow sturdier as a result. The layers are still the stuff of folk and country traditions, so they may not surprise, but they will captivate. The execution here is spot on throughout, the players in tune with each other yet still upholding the dreamy, loose sway of these songs. Most importantly, though, Baird wrote most of these songs. If she paid homage to songwriters -- and songwriting as a craft, even a discipline -- on Dear Companion, here she injects herself into that conversation. She isn't following in her heroes' footsteps so much as she's on her own path, walking the walk they taught her.
Despite all these players, the record still hinges on Baird's voice and guitar. Luckily, though, she is quite capable of shifting moods and tones from song to song. Opener "Babylon" has a sweet lightness to it, the wistful air of nostalgia. Baird's voice is high and sweet, her finger picking a sunburst of notes. The layering of other instruments only helps build on this foundation, as Mark Orleans's pedal steel work adds a deeper layer of gauzy warmth to the track. Later, "Share" takes the same elements and turns them on their head, into something overcast and worn but no less tuneful, even as Baird drops her register into something more dour. Late in the record, "Stream" best shows her ability to shift tones and textures with basic elements. The song goes back and forth between quiet finger-picked passages, and huge moments where Almond's electric guitar seethes in the background and Baird whips her guitar into a buzzing strum. As she sings "one life leads into all others," you hear the sounds do the same, as the solitary guitar gives way to electric sounds and percussion flowing beneath.
These moments show Baird as not only an affecting and rangy singer, but also an imaginative arranger. One thing worth noting about Seasons on Earth, though, is how Baird dedicates it, in the liner notes, to the late guitarist Jack Rose. Baird's playing isn't quite as intricate as Rose's instrumental acoustic work was, but she often aspires to his expansive ear for thick clusters of notes and long, winding compositions. "Stars Climb Up the Vine" is the album's longest and most meandering song, with Baird putting her playing before her music for one. She speeds up and slows down the tempo, snaps off extra notes, and melds with harp and a tangle of other guitars. It's a testament to Rose to see how so many players essentially achieve a layering he could do on his own, but it's also an impressive show of the cohesion of sound on this record. This isn't Baird and backing players; everyone is up front and meshing with the players around them. So in the end, each player lends vital sounds to these songs, and as leader, Baird's playing keeps up with her haunting voice and wide-open song structures.
With her making so many of her own beautiful sounds here, the covers -- which were the foundation to Dear Companion -- seem an afterthought. Still her take on Mark-Almond's "Friends" is shadowy and heartbreaking, when she delivers lines like "all my friends are growing old" with the heartache of someone who feels that emotion first hand. "The Beatles and the Stones", however, doesn't work quite as well. The song, originally done by the House of Love, feels like it would fit more on the last record, couched as it is in the past (with references to Vietnam) and the comforts of music. It also feels a bit on the nose compared to the more blurred-at-the-edges feelings the rest of the record digs into.
Seasons on Earth is a compelling listen, though. Despite her love of folk traditions, and a classic voice, Baird keeps these songs from ever feeling dated. The production is lush and clear, not shrouded in haze meant to evoke the past. This is music that needs no such filters, no sleights of hand. Baird's voice, her playing, her intricate arrangements and, here, her collaboration with great players make these songs every bit as immediate as they are linked to long-standing traditions. All that time she spent with other musicians' work on Dear Companion has paid off on this record. Here we get Meg Baird, just her, and that is more than enough.