Porter and Dolly. Johnny and June. Gram and Emmylou. Michael Rank and Heather McIntire. This is not an overstatement.
The opening tag to this review is a pretty strong statement, and it runs the risk of setting expectations too high. But on Red Hand Michael Rank and Heather McIntire meet those expectations handily.
They may not be inventing new sounds, but when Rank and McIntire twine their voices together, they are capable of meeting the masters on their turf and of holding their own. Rank’s gruff whisper pairs with McIntire’s crystalline purity to create an emotional core that echoes with all the intimacy and grace of the greats who have preceded them in country music’s heritage. They evoke that deep history and make it their own.
This is Rank and McIntire’s second collaboration, having sung together on Rank’s 2015 album Horsehair, one of that year’s strongest Americana releases. McIntire may be better known as the lead singer of Mount Moriah, whose How to Dance should appear on many lists of best Americana records for the current year. Rank is a rock and roll veteran, having fronted the twang-punk band Snatches of Pink for over a decade before settling into a solo career, often accompanied by the band Stag.
Where Horsehair was a breakup and aftermath record, the songs on Red Hand are more about picking up the pieces and rebuilding. Or trying to, at least. Album opener “River Road” sets that theme with its chorus of “doin’ alrights” filling in most of the spaces of a day, leaving less time for mournfulness or self-pity. Such a willfully upbeat mood that can also be heard on “Jakob”, where Rank and McIntire open with the line “I hear you’re doing a little better than you had been doing some time ago” leading to a chorus of acceptance in the present: “Tastes like honey / got these dreams filling up my mind / Hell, ain’t life funny? / We’re just two ghosts living on borrowed time." The album’s strongest evocation of persistence and genuine uplift comes with “Ninth House”, an optimistic sing-along that celebrates anyone who is willing to join the circle, whatever their origin. “And if you’re wrong and if you’re right / We will live here without blame / And if you’re black and if you’re white / I will love you all the same," they sing in a beautiful song of affirmation that might just be the album’s highlight.
But all is not healed, and the wounds still weep. “Fly away, little honey bee / I have been stung / My heart, it’s beating / But something has gone," they sing on “Milkweed”, a song of loss where Gabriele Pelli’s mournful violin deepens the mood of sorrow. “Forever and a Day” and “The Songs We Learned” broadcast nostalgic longing through a desire to hear songs from the past, as if those words and melodies could bring back the actuality of what once was. As on Horsehair, Rank’s songwriting is defined by a poetic plain-spokenness that hits home and hits hard in its simplicity. In “The Songs We Learned”, for example, they sing, “Is that Heaven calling? / Is that what you heard? / Things ain’t been easy / Down here on earth.” When, in the second refrain, Rank changes the line to “Things have been hard now/ Down here on earth” it’s that kind of soft-spoken earnestness that connects to pierce the heart (and McIntire’s keening voice on the repeat pretty much twists the knife).
Rank and McIntire sing these songs in unison rather than in response to each other. Rank’s practice of writing in the first person and addressing another directly -- ”I to you” -- creates a dual perspective in these shared vocals. Where Rank’s voice makes the first impression, McIntire’s strong and sympathetic co-vocals create a secondary sense of perspective. Where the male perspective might seek dominance, it is not granted sole authority here, for it is echoed by a simultaneously complementary and contradictory female viewpoint. These songs present the same words in different voices to enchanting effect.
On Red Hand, Michael Rank and Heather McIntire establish themselves as leaders among a growing number of young bands and performers building on the foundation of the classic duet singers of country music’s golden era. Fans of those past masters or of current acts like the Lowest Pair, the Mastertons, the Weeping Willows, or the Stray Birds will find much to enjoy here.