Judging by the song titles on Americana artist Cristina Vane’s debut full-length album, Nowhere Sounds Lovely, one might think it’s a collection of covers. The ten tracks have familiar names such as “Blueberry Hill”, “Badlands”, and “Travelin’ Blues”. But Vane’s not offering her interpretations of classics by Fats Domino, Bruce Springsteen, or Blind Willie McTell. Instead, she finds inspiration in the same things that stimulated the other artists: the American landscape, the open road, and the itch to keep moving. Vane was born in Italy and grew up in Europe before heading to the United States to attend university. She graduated from Princeton with a degree in Comparative Literature before heading out and honing her skills. She moved first to California and then to Nashville and has traveled the country in search of its heart and soul.
Vane’s instrumental prowess on slide guitar and clawhammer banjo is clearly evident on the dozen self-penned cuts. Her music bears a strong country blues influence from past masters like Skip James and Blind Willie Johnson but also bears the imprint of more modern mavens, including J.J. Cale and Chris Whitley. That brings the music into the present. Vane’s not a retro artist but one who struggles to find her voice as she encounters the people and places that exist today. She understands that what’s here has a history but is not limited by it.
Drummer Cactus Moser (Wynonna Judd) produced the record, which also features bass player Dow Tomlin, fiddle player Nate Leath, and pedal steel player Tommy Hannum. Moser gives each instrumentalist room to play. Their sounds don’t blend as much as they perform in distinct individual styles. The performers trade licks more than harmonize. Vane’s presence is always in front whether she is singing or playing (or usually both). “I am alright with being alone in the end,” Vane sings on “Dreaming of Utah”, and on this song and others, there are long sections of Vane performing solo. That showcases her ability to capture the listener’s attention through her talents, even when singing in harmony with herself.
Vane plays in a variety of styles. There are two waltzes on the album and a variety of country and blues approaches employed. “Heaven Bound Station” is especially noteworthy for showing off Vane’s fingerpicking talent. The song bounces along on a steady, old-fashioned groove. In contrast, “What Remains” seems much more modern with its rockin’ beat and Hannum’s otherworldly sounding Dobro. Vane’s vocals tie the two songs together as she keeps the pace steady through her phrasing. She never seems rushed.
According to the album notes, the ideas for the various songs came from Vane’s travels to numerous parts of the country. A track stimulated by being in New Orleans would be different than one from exploring New Mexico. Indeed, the most complex cut is “Badlands”, whose extraordinary geography has served as the muse for many artists. Vane uses the odd and curious sights as a way of making the unexpected into the new normal. “People gather like dead birds,” she sings. It’s unclear what exactly she means by this, but she captures the landscape’s benign violence through the way she makes her guitar play along and her lyrics about the cruelty such a place evokes. She’s just a tourist wandering through.