Much as I love its' most talented progenitors, the whole Americana thing seems to be getting out of control these days, with everyone and their pet raccoon grabbing Stetsons and sour mash on both sides of the pond and stripping back their sound for authenticity.
Consequently, it's a thrill to discover a new performer who really does have a new slant on all things Alt.Country-related, which Oregon native RACHEL HARRINGTON surely has. Well, I say new, even though her 2007 debut 'The Bootlegger's Daughter' has been garnering serious plaudits already. Crucially, however, her sophomore release - the fascinatingly grainy 'City Of Refuge' - dips even deeper into Americana's bulging burlap sack and emerges with some arcane, but wonderfully fatalistic treasures which are all well worth coveting.
Recorded in Tacoma, Washington with producer Evan Brubaker at the controls and mixed in Nashville by David Ferguson (of Johnny Cash's 'American Recordings' series fame), 'City Of Refuge' mixes and matches the personal, physical and mythical from the days of the pioneering American West and comes up trumps in a big way. Opener 'Karen Kane' is a vivid tale of a prostitute during the frantic days of the Gold Rush infused with Tim O'Brien's old-time fiddle, finger-picked guitar and Zak Borden's dobro and its' sepia-tinged tale of sin, temptation and devastation (“cast my lot with the Yukon gold/ pockets full of greed and lust/ angels in the devil's dust”) sounds all the better for it.
Consider the scene set, then, and Harrington and co. soon follow through with a slew of equally potent manoeuvres. Songs like 'A Housewife's Lament' and the brooding, death bed scanario of 'Angel Boy' are arguably even more old-timey, while the Trad. Arr likes of 'Old Time Religion' (yes, THAT 'Old Time Religion') and 'I Don't Want To Get Adjusted To This World' supply both gorgeously redemptive, Freakwater-style harmonies and tickets to an ancient and (at least superficially) simpler world. There are a couple of likeably ghostly oddities, too, in the shape of the chilling a capella 'The Clearcut' and the closing 'Under The Big Top': the one concession to apparently modern day folk-blues, which – with Mike Grigoni's pedal steel spilling silver stars across the song's night sky – is an absolute understated treat to end with.
Rachel Harrington's 'City Of Refuge', then, is certainly a place where folk do things in a manner that's anathema to the future-shock world of the 21st Century. It's no less emotionally complex, though, and its' Appalachian-stained, pre-Depression era landscape beckons hypnotically. You might want to leave the door propped open so you can be confident you'll return, though.