This is The Magnolia Sessions number four, and I’m back in the ring to take another swing. First up was Matt Heckler’s windblown bluegrass, followed by Jason Dea West’s graceful folk, and Johno Leeroy’s sparse country. This time around I’ll offer my thoughts on blues and folk artist and Tennessee resident Cristina Vane. In previous reviews, I’ve made some effort to point out my musical and cultural ignorance. That’s less of an issue when it comes to blues, but as before, I’ll try to express the emotional impact of the album more than any technicalities.
The album begins with a short spoken intro from Vane. I’ve mentioned previously that I’m a fan of that approach on a live record, up to and including Mr Burnside’s rambling anecdotes and grandpa jokes, so I’m on board straight away.
Opening track Half Moon Baby starts off with Vane playing her beautiful National resonator, in a droning, finger-picked blues fashion that Fred McDowell or Robert Belfour would dig, before briefly finding a folky or maybe even jazzy flavour for each chorus. All the while, the vocals are smooth and mellow, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Joni Mitchell.
Muddy Waters is another blues (of course). It’s mellower than the previous track, but the groove is still irresistible, and it also marks the introduction of Vane’s tasty slide skills. Again the minimalist blues morphs into a jazzy strut each chorus.
Next, we head into distinctly folky territory, as Vane brings out the banjo for Done Gone Changed Your Mind. It’s simple and gentle, in musical tone and in lyrical intent. The banjo remains for the next track, The Cuckoo. This is a more rhythmically tense piece of mountain-country or even Celtic folk, with plenty of log cabin and mountain imagery to match.
When Cristina Vane plays blues, she’s not locked into a 12-bar or any other blues structures, so she’s free to add different flavours at any point…
Another spoken intro, and a switch back to that beautiful resonator for Damn Shame. It’s built on big fat chords and slide, and the first tiny hint of Vane pushing her vocals past the silky tones of the previous tracks. It’s followed by ‘big ole sappy love song’, Love Like Summer Rain – a sweet and sad pop ballad that works beautifully with a heavy-strummed slide sound. Given the full elaborate studio treatment, it’d be a mainstream chart-topper, but this raw version suits me just fine.
The album’s rounded out by two more banjo tunes, and they both seem have an optimistic and future-oriented lyrical flavour. Eventually we all need to know when the time is right to leave and move on, and when the time is right to take the plunge and open your heart again. Time For Leaving is a meditation on the former: a little folky, maybe even a little country, and entirely anthemic. Heart On The Mend is for the latter, and another tune that might belong to Appalachia, or Ireland, or both. Either way, it gave me goosebumps.
So this brings me to the end of my track rundown, and a few closing thoughts. This is a really deft mix of blues and folk, and not just in the alternation of resonator guitar tracks with banjo tracks. When Cristina Vane plays blues, she’s not locked into a 12-bar or any other blues structures, so she’s free to add different flavours at any point. She also has a pure, clear tone to her vocals (as opposed to the overly breathy delivery of every 2020 hipster city girl with a guitar) and brings that tone to blues, a style where both women and men tend to have strident or gravelly vocals, and that’s really refreshing. It’s an excellent album: thoughtful, emotional, direct, and catchy.
Scribed by: Rob Bryant