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Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion: Exploration

Jason MacNeil

An engaging, old country/folks/roots rock album that, nine months away from singing Auld Ang Syne, is worthy of year-end lists.

Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion


Label: New West
US Release Date: 2005-03-08
UK Release Date: Available as import
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Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion could be this generation's Buddy and Julie Miller, although some of the lineage would go far beyond that comparison. The daughter of Arlo and thus the granddaughter of a certain Woody, Sarah Lee Guthrie has a certain old-school style in her voice that harkens back to early country. And Irion has more of the same. This album, produced by The Jayhawks' Gary Louris, is a very special and lovely album that takes absolutely no time to sink your teeth into. The opening "In Lieu of Flowers" starts off on a snail's pace and never quickens, having that long-time swaying motion to it that people like Neil Young or Gram Parsons have done before them. The harmonies are excellent, bringing to mind Parsons and Emmylou Harris in some instances. Although the song is less the three minutes, the great traditional country traits are all there -- the pedal steel, the "in no hurry" pacing and the distinctive tone. It's a song you might have on replay several times.

This sense of grace is continued on the infectious, mountain-esque "Cease Fire" which sounds like a cross between Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton vying for space in a duet between Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. The bass tends to dominate the piano bar-fuelled track though, but it still works oh so well. The song, co-written by Guthrie and Irion, talks about a freight train whistle as they travel the rails. It might be only the second song but they would be hard pressed to top this effort. "Holdin' Back" brings the mood down more into a reflective, Natalie Merchant circa "Jealousy" kind of vibe. They take the title literally, downplaying most of the song with a rather ordinary structure, but Guthrie carries the song from the bridge on. A real charmer is the title track, which has a tender piano propelling it along, resembling a classic Neil Young tune as they sing about the downtrodden and the poor. Here they rev things up into a different gear for the second half before the chorus, giving it a whole new dimension. Part country, part rock and part psychedelic, it is the type of song Wilco still seeks to make.

The duo's ability to easily morph from one genre to the other is quite shocking when they move into "Kindness" which was penned by Irion and with him on lead vocals. The easy-going, relaxing nature of the song is in the vein of "Mr. Bojangles" by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but Guthrie's harmonies weave their way in and out of the number. After a gospel-tinged and uplifting revamped cover of Pete Seeger's "Dr. King", they go into a murky and somewhat quirky mode with "Morin's Over", something that Bobbie Gentry might have considered in her day. But the only problem it that is seems like it is only half finished as it begins to fade out just a hair over two minutes. It has potential but that potential isn't achieved here. Fortunately they atone for this with the hardest rock ditty on the album "Gervais".

The sleeper pick might be the traditional folksy "Mixed Blessings" that is basically voice, harmonica and acoustic guitar. But despite talk about hawks, doves and murder with an axe, the song is quite tender. The one tune that doesn't fit the bill though is the Ryan Adams-ish "Georgia Pine" that seems too forced for its own good. It's is laidback but the drawn out harmonies might be grating to some people. Here is the first time where they almost become a parody of the alt.country genre, but it's a small miscue for the amount of quality and craftsmanship here. This is a record you should be rushing to your record shops for.


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