by Neil Riddell
Ten dazzling songs that will make you weep, yet retain an overarching sense of hope and optimism
The most immediately striking thing about Rachel Baiman’s magnificent new record is the surefooted confidence with which opening track Some Strange Notion unfurls.
A couple of bars of unhurried fingerpicking lay the ground for one of American roots music’s most multi-talented performers to enter proceedings singing of ‘the work of the working people, seldom fruits in their own time’.
The song is billed as a ‘socialist rallying cry’ in the accompanying PR: Baiman partially credits her own activism to an upbringing with a father who was involved in the Democratic Socialists of America at a time when membership of that organisation was a decidedly niche pursuit.
Lyrically it contains a foreboding sense of anger (‘You cannot bury those already resting beneath the ground‘) and a stoic realisation that fixing a broken system is a challenge for the long run (‘We will try to recognise what it takes to build foundations that will stand the test of time‘).
The message is clad in a swashbuckling chorus, Baiman tapping into a rich melodic seam that only a select band of songwriters enjoy access to. It very much sets the tone for the remaining thirty two minutes.
In musical terms, Baiman is one of those gifted people you could nearly describe as a master of all trades and a jack of none. She is as adroit on multiple instruments as you might expect after a decade spent in East Nashville flitting between her own projects and side-woman roles for Kacey Musgraves and Kevin Morby, amongst others.
An assured singer with a style distinct enough to distinguish her within a richer-than-ever gene pool of American roots vocalists, Common Nation of Sorrow also sees Baiman turning her hand to self-production. A sprinkling of mixing desk stardust comes from the esteemed Tucker Martine in Portland.
Her banjo-led reworking of a fragmented old John Hartford song is essential listening. We all come across characters who think nothing of trampling over others to get their way in life, and Self-Made Man is a reminder that the male of the species is traditionally the chief offender. Working in an industry where a woman’s path can be obstacle-strewn, to put it mildly, having Baiman vocalise that message significantly enhances the song’s potency.
Her own considerable songwriting chops are buttressed by another leading light of modern day Americana, Erin Rae, on the starkly beautiful co-write Annie.
It offers a rueful recounting of how, as a young adolescent, she willingly shattered her own childhood innocence: “I was an old soul with a raw heart,” Baiman sings, “so eager to see what would tear me apart.”
She has developed a real flair for writing smart, subtle earworm songs focused on matters personal, political and all points in between. The LP finds ample space for more of the vignettes of life experience that populated its excellent predecessors Shame and Cycles.
The keening fiddle motif of Old Flame heralds a tale of being ‘caught off guard‘ when a bar started playing a song by Luke Bell, an ex-partner who was found dead aged just 32 last year. ‘My heart still burns, my stomach still turns / When I hear the song of an old flame.‘ Bitter, meanwhile, is an atmospheric, brooding number that wouldn’t sound out of place on Gillian Welch’s wonderful 2011 record The Harrow and the Harvest.
This concise collection of ten dazzling songs will probably make you weep, make you angry, make you fairly despondent about today’s politics on either side of the Atlantic – yet it retains an overarching sense of hope and optimism.
Common Nation of Sorrow is jam-packed with high-class harmonies, spare-but-sparkling instrumentation and pin-sharp production. It’s an utter joy to listen to and can’t help but send you away feeling a little better about this imperfect life.
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