A warm foray into country music's best side: despair and doubt with a smile.
The great thing about some folk and country records is the dichotomy. The cover will feature a smiling, beatific face while the songs parlay into desperation, mortality, and ill-advised situations. A gifted artist can go one step further by swinging that division back around. They can make all this life heartbreak sound appealing, even necessary. April Verch is proving herself to be precisely one of these artists.
Steal the Blue, Verch's fourth release (and first that should be filed under 'country' instead of 'folk'), is the first to truly let her vocals soar. Her last releases were heavy on instrumentals and her virtuosic ability with a fiddle. By letting her voice -- a smooth mix of Alison Krauss and Dolly Parton -- take the reins, the fiddle may step into the background, but that only makes it more pronounced upon arrival. It's in the contrast of the sounds that it is raised to the forefront but it's also more than that. Verch is a master of subtlety and precision. She doesn't over-sing, or over-play, although it's plain she could easily do both. Add to this the ace production by Stephen Mougin and Jon Weisberger, and Steal the Blue should easily qualify as one of the best country music releases of 2009.
It's easy to hear the influence of Alison Krauss on April Verch, but what gives her a compelling edge (much like Krauss) is the digestion of what is old. It is tradition that she stands upon. There's an inherent lonely sound that emanates from the fiddle (something about the crying, almost hysterical sound of the strings) and the best players know how to evoke this without turning their back on the playfulness of the instrument. This is displayed best, and in layers, on the opening track, "Slip Away". The narrator is determined to live in the present but along with that statement of belief arrives the corollary which is "Oh these days are gonna slip away / They'll be gone before you know it". Verch makes promises to the present while the soon-to-be-past creeps in. The fiddle dances in and out sounding like a mournful dancer.
"Long Way Home", written by the splendid Hayes Carll, is nearly perfect. Each note resonates as Verch wraps her lovely voice around the bittersweet lyrics: "I would give anything / One more night to learn / One last song to sing". The fiddle plays around the melody, contextualizing the atmosphere of regret against the chorus's affirmation that we all are merely trying our best. "My Friend Craig" is one of the few instrumentals, and it stands out as record of what Verch can do with a piece of stringed wood. Her playing is all over the place and yet never slides out of her control. It's spirited and haunting and one of the stellar tracks.
But what allows Steal the Blue to stand out from the pack is the aforementioned dichotomy of the thing. Put this on in the background and it will be another pretty, impressive country/bluegrass records. Sit down and listen to the words and it becomes something larger than that. There is pain and wandering lost here. There are worries. There is reaching out to people who will never respond. In the end, Verch uses her voice and fiddle to create a world. It's not about the smile she possesses in the photographs but after hearing her version of it, you may give in and decide it may as well be.