Memory, both harmonious and broken, haunts the 11 tracks of Honest, the new record from Ordinary Elephant, the wife and husband duo of Crystal Harin-Damore and Pete Damore. This spare and beautiful record, which features nuanced accompaniment from Will Kimbrough, Michael Rinne, and Neilson Hubbard, has captured my attention since its early May release.
“Some things can wash clean,” Crystal sings on the album opener “I Come From”, “And some will stick around”, setting a tone that envelopes the whole album with a mix of beauty and melancholy as the Damores present a collection of characters with stories both fulfilling and tragic. “Every chamber of my heart bears the mark / Of what I come from,” they sing together, “Sometimes our world falls apart, but I guess that’s what it takes / To find the part that cannot break.” We’re shaped by our past, is one lesson that hits consistently home here, but as important, we’re not doomed to repeat it, which is the powerful lesson of “Scars We Keep”, where a grown child breaks away from the racist ways of his father: “It’s time to be a brother, not my father’s son / I was born to be a bigot, but that don’t mean that I am one.” The song’s refrain of “We are all the color of the scars we keep” is one of those lines that become instantly timeless in a great song by a great songwriter.
And, listening to Honest, it is easy to conclude that the Damores are a great songwriting pair, capable of quiet, poignant observation in one moment, as when they sing “A poor man’s rehab is a cheap motel”, and the sly gut-punch of directness in the next as they continue in “The War”, the tale of the quiet suffering of a Vietnam vet, “No one picks a fight they think they’ll lose / But some battles you don’t get to choose” in “The War”. Then there’s the brilliant set up of “Jenny & James”, where the narrator tells the tale of the young couple who fell in love early in the previous century despite coming from different sides of the track, and different races. We hear the narrator tell their tale amidst the guiding chorus of “Don’t forget what you come from” only to learn that both are long gone and that the narrator is holding their great-granddaughter to whom she bequeaths the name of “Jenny” to keep the chain of pride in memory going.
The Damores harmonies on the song’s final, a capella chorus are hauntingly beautiful. Those harmonies are more somber yet ultimately uplifting in “I’m Alright”, whose widowed narrator still hears his beloved’s singing in the whistle of the tea kettle as he waits out his own earthly time. The sweet turn of this song comes with his realization that there’s still time to seek meaningful connection as he rises to answer a knock on the door. Memories don’t, of necessity end, nor do they necessarily end us.
Discovering Ordinary Elephant for the first time with this latest record, the comparison that I can’t shake is to Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer. Not since Carter’s untimely death in 2002 have I heard a pair of musicians that strike me as so intimately in sync, with music as welcoming and lyrics as gripping as Crystal Harin-Damore and Pete Damore. Their songwriting is more character-driven than the metaphysically-minded Carter’s, and Crystal handles lead vocals exclusively where Carter and Grammer traded off those duties, but it’s the differences that make the comparison resonate for me. As beloved as the Carter/Grammer team was, no one wants an imitation; the Damores are making their own unique music that just happens to strike on many of the properties of that highly-regarded earlier pair. Fans of Tanglewood Tree will find a lot to embrace in Honest, easily one of the best folk duo records I have heard in years.