Monday, October 8, 2012
Under Mountains, by Rachel Sermanni
It's time for Alone at the Microphone to deviate once more from books to talk about a remarkable musician. I've done it only twice before, I think -- both times for Neil Young albums. This one is a little bit different, though I'll say this songwriter is as talented as Neil Young was at her age.
You probably have not heard of Rachel Sermanni, especially if you are one of my Stateside readers. She's beginning to splash the waters in Europe, and I'm one of the lucky ones who fell in love with her music before the release of Under Mountains, her new full-length album. We went to see Elvis Costello perform in Sligo, Ireland, just about a year ago. The spritely young Scottish woman opened for Costello, and in this writer's opinion, she stole the show from the veteran. A small group of female violinists backed Sermanni (who sings and plays a stellar folk guitar), and after the concert we picked up her first four-song EP outside. The recordings are great, though they are far from a representative sample of this lady's capabilities (even considering the jazzy edge to "Pablo's City").
Then Sermanni released a much stronger EP in early 2012. In March, she put on a solo show in Dublin, at Whelan's Upstairs, which is the kind of place where you'd be proud to say "I saw her when." She showed off her impressive range -- of volume, soulfulness, fingerwork, songwriting styles, and hilarious between-songs chatter. (And Rachel, if you should read this: I hope that someday you release the song called something like "I Have a Girl." Also, the burger van song.)
Under Mountains finally came out last month, and my hopes soared. Would this be the diverse album I'd been yearning for? Several of the songs were already released on the EPs, so the new songs would make or break the album as a coherent work rather than just a collection of tracks from a talented songwriter. (At any rate, the artwork is beautiful. Not enough artists put energy into album covers.)
Perfect timing: a drive through the Black Range in the Gila Forest of southern New Mexico awaited me. On a hunch, I put the CD in the car and withstood its temptation until Hillsboro had fallen away behind me and the swerving road climbed ahead.
Straight away, the record plays with the juxtaposition of sounds. "Breathe Easy" reveals a songwriter unafraid of empty space, where the listener hangs suspended between bass notes as in a thick hammock. Then "Bones" jumps in with a soulful edge, reminding the listener not to get too comfortable here; the unexpected lurks like a deer in the road around each switchback. I heard this song when Sermanni was backed by the ladies -- it was the one that made me say "whoa" -- and I could not be more tickled to hear it included here.
"Waltz" is one of those songs deep for its simplicity and simple for its depth. It's beautiful. I just wished that Sermanni had not chosen to make the song a duet, or that she had chosen a male singer with a voice to complement and challenge her own. I've heard Neil Young sing with Josh Groban (no thank you), and I've heard Neil Young sing with Dave Matthews (drooling with awe). Just because you have two unique or talented voices doesn't mean that the result is always a success. Perhaps Sermanni doesn't recognize her strength as a vocalist. She needs to, and then she needs to be selective in who she braids her voice with.
As the elevation soars into the Range, the entire terrain transforms around the highway. Clinging scrub brushes, ragweed, and spindly cacti abdicate to soaring red ponderosa pines. And amid the pines stands a single peach tree, the accidental growth from a traveler's discarded pit. That's when the whimsical and surreal "Ever Since The Chocolate" submitted to one of Sermanni's most powerful songs, "The Fog." It's got tension and suspense in the music, and deft interplay with the lyrics.
"Little Prayer" provides a breather, kind of like Young's "Til the Morning Comes" following "Southern Man" on After the Gold Rush. Then "Sea Oh See" (a self-proclaimed "pirate song") egged me forward. The peak of the Black Range sneaked up on me, as it often does, announcing itself only because the car was suddenly rolling downhill rather than climbing ever upward. Right near here, I once saw a mountain lion; this time, the animals were hiding, and the unsettling soaring of "Sleep" gave way to the descending bass line that rolled downhill with me.
Eventually, the precarious cliffs mellow out into deeper forest paths, and here I saw a flock of wild turkeys in the road. I slowed down to admire the sheer size of these birds who roam the woods heedless of being eaten, and "Marshmallow Unicorn" serenaded us like I picture in the epiphany scene in an indie film.
The rest of the album may not have the variety in tone that the first two-thirds or so has, though it's no weaker for that. Each of the final pieces -- "Black Current," "Eggshells," and "To A Fox" -- has its own musical magic. These are no filler songs to flesh out a CD, but the proof that this songwriter has the chops to write beautiful and evocative pieces. These ones may never be chart-topping singles, but those aren't typically the songs I like anyway. I've always appreciated an album that feels like a novel rather than a collection, and these songs provide the perfect denouement.
They also gave me time to contemplate Sermanni's style. Under Mountains is unified by certain threads running through many songs, ideas like dreaming and waking, dancing and loving, naming and moving. But more than the common words and themes, this album is unified by its opposite and complementary parts. Just like Sermanni's soulful voice bounding forth from a tiny 20-year-old body, her music comes alive in its cognizance of yin and yang. She sings often of soul and skin, of sky and stone, only they come together as one rather than clashing as oil and water.
Her music is ether and earth. It is never one or the other. It is always one and both.
As the eerie and uplifting "To A Fox" wound down (is the fox Rachel Sermanni's totem? her guide? her muse?) the road dropped suddenly from the trees back to the hills and the dust. The speed limit soared, the road straightened out before me, and I ejected the disc. Driving over a granite monolith, I had breathed in the sky. Returned to earth, I knew I had brought the ether back with me.