Music

Fayssoux: Early

Emmylou Harris’ one-time harmony singer takes on her own melodies with earnest heart but little energy.


Fayssoux

Early

Label: Red Beet
US Release Date: 2008-03-10
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon
iTunes

If Fayssoux McLean’s debut solo album Early sounds a bit like a throwback to Emmylou Harris’ early albums of the 1970s, that’s not a coincidence. If you go back to Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, you’ll hear Fayssoux -- then performing as Fayssoux Starling -- singing alongside Harris on the duet “Green Rolling Hills”. Fayssoux met Harris in the early 1970s through her then-husband John Starling, one of the founding vocalists and guitarist of the Washington, DC-area bluegrass band the Seldom Scene. Harris took a shine to Fayssoux’s harmony vocals, and Fayssoux sang on Harris’ first four records with Warner Brothers, including her major-label solo debut Pieces of the Sky and the great Luxury Liner.

It’s been thirty years since Fayssoux sang on those albums, and she initially didn’t pursue a music career, instead working as a teacher in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Enter Peter Cooper, a Nashville-based music journalist and country singer-songwriter, who met Fayssoux in the mid-1990s while working on a book about Spartanburg’s unusually rich music history. Cooper drew Fayssoux back to the microphone, and eventually to the recording studio for Early. The two drew on Fayssoux’s long history and Cooper’s current connections in Americana music to enlist an impressive roster of studio musicians: in addition to Cooper and Spartanburg guitarist Brandon Turner, David Ball contributes backing vocals and bass on several tracks, the richly experienced session player Lloyd Green’s pedal steel and dobro fills out the album, and renowned bluegrass musician (and one-time member of Harris’ Hot Band) Ricky Skaggs brings his mandolin to three tracks. Best of all, Emmylou Harris joins her former harmony singer to add her own harmonies to the traditional tune “The Blackest Crow” and to the two tracks penned by Fayssoux, “Early” and “I Know It’s Over”.

With such a lineup, it’s disappointing that Early is not a more exciting or energetic album. Fayssoux’s alto is clear and soothing and sounds best on the rocking-chair ballads, lullabies, and slow waltzes that comprise most of the album, but the reliance on these lapping-water tunes prevents Early from ever being anything more than simply soothing. The three-part harmonies that Fayssoux strikes with Cooper and Harris on “The Blackest Crow” and “Early”, along with those performed with Sharon and Cheryl White on the traditional “Amen Children” and “Weepin’ Mary”, are graceful and pretty, but also mostly drowsy, without the current needed to draw the listener into their universe. But if the languorous songs that dominate the album try sweetly but ultimately fail to cast a spell over the listener, Fayssoux’s few attempts to up the tempo are also the album’s biggest stumbles. Drums drive the rhythm on only one of the album’s songs, “I Know How It Feels to Love”, and the result is a regrettable lite-rock non sequitur amidst the rest of the album’s country-folk. Fayssoux’s voice strains to the twangy requirements of the album’s single foray into rockabilly, a cover of Rufus Shoffner’s “Save It! Save It!”, a rendition that sounds quaint and goofy but doesn’t recapture any of the genre-pushing energy that filled 1950s honky tonk dance halls. The album could use a few more genuine foot-stompers, but it needs ones with more crackle and life than this.

The album’s listlessness seems to reside less in the song choices than in the arrangements. Fayssoux has not yet developed Harris’ skill in song selection, but for the most part the songs are all well chosen. The album mostly presents a mixture of traditional gospel tunes and songs with their roots in the country, bluegrass, and folk scenes of the 1930s to the 1970s. Fayssoux would have done well to also follow Harris’ lead not only in song choice but also in rootsy but inventive arrangements; even with the additions of Green’s pedal steel and Skagg’s mandolin, the songs are too sparse for Fayssoux’s warm but unsurprising vocal delivery to carry alone. On Bill Halley’s 1932 standard, “Miss the Mississippi and You”, which has been presented by everyone from Jimmie Rodgers to Harris, Merle Haggard, and Arlo Guthrie, Fayssoux slows the tune down and delivers it as a parent would to coax a child to sleep.

It’s not all misses—Skagg’s mandolin and Fayssoux’s three-part harmonies with the Whites inject a bit of toe-tapping life into “Amen Children”, and a cover of Rodney Crowell’s “California Earthquake” comes as close as anything on the album to capture the mournful sweetness that is country music’s greatest strength. Best of all is “Bugler”, which marries the album’s prettiest arrangement to the slow-water vocal cadence at which Fayssoux excels. Fayssoux also showcases strength in high-lonesome songwriting on the waltz “I Know It’s Over”, one of two of her own tunes featured. “Warm days a’coming / I need to be humming / A new tune, for a heart that’s real”, she sings before harmonizing with Emmylou Harris on the chorus. On Early, you get the sense that Fayssoux has the right heart and almost the right tune—it’s just the energy that’s missing.

5

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image