Hannah Frances 2023
Photo: Grant Hindsley / Clandestine Label Services

Hannah Frances Unveils Mystic, Lush Folk on ‘Keeper of the Shepherd’

Hannah Frances’ hypnotic new album Keeper of the Shepherd is a master class in sophisticated songwriting and pastoral scene-setting.

Keeper of the Shepherd
Hannah Frances
Ruination Record Co.
1 March 2024

“The brilliance of the day waits for you to wake again,” sings Hannah Frances at the beginning of “Bronwyn,” the opening track of her new album, Keeper of the Shepherd. “Patient in the way I waited for you to love me again.” A lilting but off-kilter time signature carries the song along as oddly tuned, slightly dissonant acoustic and electric guitars are intertwined. As on previous albums, like Bedrock (2021) and White Buffalo (2018), Frances maintains a woodsy, avant-folk sound that is both inviting and curiously unsettling. You can hear Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley, and Joni Mitchell in these songs, but also Radiohead, Kate Bush, and the progressive folk of Pentangle.

Recorded in the small town of Arlington, Vermont, at the home studio of Frances’ friend Kevin Copeland (who also plays many instruments here), Keeper of the Shepherd is a meditation on love and loss, “grief spurred by the death of her father”, according to the album’s press materials, “internalized patriarchal harm from years of religious trauma, and a collection of hollow, shorn relationships”. Sometimes, a swift tempo partially hides the grief and heartache. The title track gallops along with brushed drums and Frances’ gorgeous voice singing of what she’s lost:” I hold to my father’s heart, dying in my arms / I died too, I died too / I lost you, I lost me within you.” The thick slabs of electric guitar fingerpicking give the song plenty of sonic texture.

On the acoustic-based, impressionistic ballad “Woolgathering”, Frances sings and plays deliberately, one would say tentatively, until her voice breaks out unabashedly with a sweet falsetto invoking Mitchell and brushing up against barely audible percussion. In the span of five minutes, Frances and her accompanists create a mood that’s jazzy, thickly folky, and even beautifully indescribable as the song concludes with the gentle introduction of Hunter Diamond’s clarinet and Alex Ellsworth’s cello.

While the general mood of Keeper of the Shepherd is one of quiet, open-tuned reflection, Frances revels in the occasional orchestral sweep. “Husk” starts life as a contemplative, almost hymn-like ballad with vocals over muffled acoustic guitar, but eventually, her vocals are stacked in beautiful, lush harmonies as strings engulf the track in a sublime middle section. “Death is a husk,” she sings, “Holding the shape of my life.” Frances is not afraid of unusual, sometimes out-of-left-field arrangement choices, but she rarely, if ever, makes a wrong move. This is an album that is reflective and majestic but also fearless.

Along those lines, the full-band sound of “Vacant Intimacies” can initially sound a bit out of place, but it’s executed perfectly, as Frances and the band ebb and flow through the verses and chorus, sounding at times almost anthemic in a way that’s grandiose but breathtaking, with a chunky electric guitar closing section that provides a welcome, ever-so-slight shift in the song’s dynamic.

“The riverbed is filled with husks of lead / The dusk is turning to give and return,” Frances sings in the song “Floodplain”, released as a single last year. “The measure of our love was yearning for more than we could carry / More than we have buried in the floodplain.” Frances is adept at crafting elegantly and eloquently poetic lyrics, but they are accompanied by lush, complex, and deeply felt music. On Keeper of the Shepherd, she places herself among eclectic, “complete” artists like Joni Mitchell and Jeff Buckley. She’s a keeper of the shepherd, sure, but also a carrier of the torch.

RATING 9 / 10