Music

Folk's Heather Maloney Matches Power to Vulnerability on 'Soil in the Sky'

Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Heather Maloney is in prime position to defy listeners' expectations. On Soil in the Sky, she makes it indelibly clear that any predetermined labels propelled at her will be defied and bucked.

Soil in the Sky
Heather Maloney

Signature Sounds

14 June 2019

Heather Maloney is in prime position to defy listeners' expectations. On her fourth studio album, Soil in the Sky, she makes it indelibly clear that any predetermined labels propelled at her will be defied and bucked. Released from the Northampton, Massachusetts based label Signature Sounds, Soil in the Sky establishes Maloney's platform for circumventing convention. Adorned in alluring lyricism, Soil in the Sky develops a multitude of captivating musical twists all the while projecting earnest emotionality.

After a brief introduction, Soil in the Sky opens with the agency defining "Enigma". Here Maloney questions women's and girls' inability to determine their position in society. As she makes clear, women are defined in socially acceptable norms that often incorrectly establish identities as one-dimensional. The lyrics shift between first and second person narrative. In doing so, she purposely demonstrates solidarity with others who have struggled to engender their own agency. On this track, she is backed by Lake Street Dive's formidable lead singer Rachael Price, who has penned several tracks centralizing female empowerment.

As a rhetorical effect, Maloney illustrates her identity by delineating all she is not: "I am not a lady you can tame, I am not a girl you can shame / I am not a woman you can name, I am an enigma." She subverts the normative compulsion to confine powerful women to prescribed identities. By rejecting the terms superficially constructing women, Maloney establishes herself as a unique entity, an "Enigma". But unlike the track's title, Maloney is not difficult to understand. She uses the track to establish that conventions do not bind her. As she aptly contends, "One day you sing a little folk song / One day you want to fucking rock." Accordingly, Soil in the Sky follows a similar trajectory.

"Oklahoma Lullaby" is as gritty as it is catchy. Inspired by the Ken Burns' documentary, Dust Bowl, Maloney addresses the hardships associated with the human-made ecological disaster. Much as Burns purposely shies away from casting blame, Maloney likewise exhibits the individual suffering and the grief derived from asking, "How we came to deserve it / I don't know, don't know what we did." Jay Ungar's fiddle contribution is as harrowing as it is authentic.

The proceeding track "We Were Together", an homage to Walt Whitman's poem "Once I Pass'd Through the Populous City" bares connection to "Oklahoma Lullaby". In the poem, much as in Maloney's track, both poet and musician contend with fleeting memories and avoiding misremembering those we have lost or left behind. The pull to remember is revisited in "All In Your Name". As she suggests in the PopMatters interview with Michael Bialas, remembrance is the tool for dissolving darkness with light. Juxtaposing "Oklahoma Lullaby" to "We Were Together" and "All in Your Name" engenders a staggering reminder that humans share bonds across time and space.

Maloney's ability to channel emotion is radical. She does so unapologetically and relies on vibrant lyrical imagery to convincingly establish sentiment, as masterfully exemplified in "One Hundred Pennies". Here she portrays the struggles of a single mother who bravely attempts to protect and care for her daughter. Maloney's narrative is boldly poignant, especially when she sings, "They saw me sit alone / Broken, that's what they called my home / And I ate lunch with a lady in an office down the hall." Exuding tenderness, anguish, sensitivity, Maloney succeeds in evoking empathy.

Probably the toughest part about Soil in the Sky, and Maloney, in general, is determining what makes her distinctive from other women identified folk-singers. Whereas her voice is engrossing and her lyrics enchanting, the album invites listeners to explore what Maloney contributes to the folk genre. As Soil in the Sky comes to a close, Maloney fails to answer this question, indicating she is unsure of her position. But what listeners are left with is not a definite answer on who Maloney is as a musician. Instead, the album answers the question of who inspired her. Her penchant for vibrant storytelling is reminiscent of the Indigo Girls or even the singer Melanie. Maloney's ability to create a palpable intimacy between audience and performer is reflective of Dar Williams' quiet roar. As such, Maloney adroitly captures her predecessors' ability to match power to vulnerability while Maloney herself is still discovering her creative modus operandi.

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