When all of the psych-, freak-, and anti- qualifiers are stripped away, the heart of those movements (ideally) is just good old, plain folk: music meant to be shared, handed down, and participated in. The sonic accoutrements that make bands like Meg Baird’s Espers so delightful can send critics and audiences into fits of incense-steeped reveries, but the lineage of “Byss & Abyss”, for example, is as much “Greensleeves” as it is The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of an Onion, if not more. Baird’s solo debut for Drag City, Dear Companion, further exposes the link between Jean Ritchie and Vashti Bunyan that should be a hell of a lot more obvious than it often is.
Dear Companion peels away those onion layers with a set of traditionals, covers, and a couple ringer originals, often arranged with just a single guitar and Baird’s sweet and unaffected voice. In an age when everything and the kitchen sink are thrown at even the simplest of songs, the starkness of the album belies confidence not only in the material, but in the potential for the most basic of presentations to still connect with listeners. The lilting title track, for instance, is showcased twice—once with a rolling, fingerpicked accompaniment, once a cappella. Though both versions are skeletal when in comparison to much of today’s hyphenated fare, each displays a keen awareness of how to effectively and efficiently communicate a song. Baird sings the former with little vocal ornamentation, only the most subtle vibrato rippling her clear tone. On the latter however, she ratchets up a key or two, gently twanging her vowels to bring the song closer to its Appalachian derivations.
The other traditional folk songs on the album are given the same faithful, uncluttered treatment. “Sweet William and Fair Ellen” finds Baird strumming a dulcimer while navigating the song’s unique rhythmic structure; “Willie O’Winsbury” pairs the exquisitely melancholy of the Scottish ballad’s melody with a jangling, hammer-on filled guitar pattern. Best perhaps is Baird’s interpretation of “The Cruelty of Barbary Allen”, a song covered by everyone from Seeger to Dylan, Colin Meloy to freaking John Travolta. Throughout the song’s six-plus minutes and umpteen verses, Baird keeps the song and story compelling through judicious use of double-tracked vocals, and a warm, rambling guitar arrangement.
Baird’s own two compositions, were it not for the liner note credits, would be nearly indistinguishable from the public domain tunes, although “Riverhouse in Tinicum” betrays a slightly more modern fingerstyle pattern with its half-stepping bass notes. “Maiden in the Moor Lay” is a shimmering and bittersweet ballad, adding angelic harmonies on a wordless, key-shifting chorus. Each is an exciting example of Baird’s ability to work creatively within the style, but it’s the handful of contemporary covers that ultimately sets Dear Companion apart from other recent, reverent, and lovely folk albums. “River Song”, by New Zealand’s Chris Thompson, is a highlight of the album, a haunting, dulcimer-strummed number, as is “The Waltze of the Tennis Players”, which sports a hop-along gait and a sweet sense of humor, as one unfaithful lover says to another, “Constance, what a name / You should have said ‘Felicity’”. It’s a small dose of levity in the middle of an album that plays it pretty straight.
It’s a heartening development that young artists are turning more and more to timeless material for inspiration, making connections as Baird does between Jimmy Webb (and the New Riders of the Purple Sage) and the unknown author(s) of “Barbary Allen”. It’s even more heartening when such an album is executed without a dash of pretension or Puritanism, just a collection of songs and stories meant to be a dear and longtime companion, not a freak-psych-anti-trend or accessory.