if Only There Was A River

UNCUT - - New Al­bums - By Erin Os­mon

WOOdSiST/MARE 8/10 Kan­sas-born song­writer airs her Mid­west­ern in­stincts.

ON her de­but full-length al­bum, Anna St Louis sings of land­scapes and wa­ter, spir­i­tual long­ing and heart­break, with a tone and ca­dence that is un­mis­tak­ably Mid­west­ern in its clar­ity. It’s no co­in­ci­dence that the LA-based song­writer hails from Kan­sas City, where the Mis­souri River – the long­est in North Amer­ica – was the an­chor for an en­tire town, which was set­tled on the busi­ness of ships trad­ing goods. In turn, her al­bum trades in the mag­nif­i­cence of such quintessen­tially Amer­i­can touch­stones, from the might of rivers to the mys­tique of the desert. It’s a meet­ing of West and Mid­west that is de­cid­edly un­fussy and wholly re­fresh­ing.

So many new singer-song­writ­ers step into a false South­ern drawl for the sake of a dusty folk sound that it makes her de­liv­ery un­com­monly bold. On If Only There Was A River, St Louis re­lies on her ac­cent-neu­tral sing­ing voice, an­chored by John Fa­hey-in­spired gui­tar riffs and sim­ple strum­ming. At times the vibe re­calls the heart­worn re­flec­tions of Karen Dal­ton, who once lived in Kan­sas, but with­out the thick coat of mis­ery. In­stead, the airy, un­com­pli­cated sound re­calls a ru­ral ex­panse, with St Louis’s hushed con­fi­dence guid­ing the lis­tener through fields and along banks.

Some­thing of a pas­toral song suite, the al­bum is book­ended by metaphor­i­cal con­tem­pla­tions on wa­ter. “River” closes the LP with a med­i­ta­tion on long­ing, the river a con­duit for cleans­ing and re­birth, a sort of bi­b­li­cal throw­back that trades re­li­gios­ity for mat­ters of the heart. A back­ing vo­cal rep­e­ti­tion of the phrase “if only” is pro­vided by co-pro­ducer Kevin Morby, as St Louis strums and gospel­style or­gan deep­ens the groove. Opener “Wa­ter”, dec­o­rated by danc­ing vi­o­lin and plucked gui­tar, likens the thrill of ro­mance to the un­charted cur­rents and depths of a se­cret swim­ming hole.

There’s a sense that St Louis felt great free­dom in trust­ing her col­lab­o­ra­tors, whose con­tri­bu­tions flesh out the acous­tic-gui­tar-and-voice sound estab­lished by her cas­sette de­but, last year’s First Songs. Drum­mer Justin Sul­li­van, who per­forms as Night Shop

and also played in Morby’s band, is par­tic­u­larly valu­able here, with a style that feels at once spon­ta­neous and stud­ied, pow­er­ful but not too tidy. His hand drum­ming on “The Bells” el­e­vates the track from a stan­dard folk plat­ter to some­thing cin­e­matic and chill­ing as St Louis talks of loom­ing shad­ows. “And the feel­ing is deep/Oh, the feel­ing is wide,” she sings, echo­ing the out­ward ef­fect of the song. “Un­der­stand”, mean­while, beau­ti­fully con­veys the very toxic frus­tra­tion that can ac­com­pany mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween lovers. A sim­ple plea un­der­scores the agony: “Un­der­stand me to you/Un­der­stand.”

St Louis en­listed the stu­dio tal­ents of Morby, a friend from high school and from her days in Kan­sas City punk bands, to en­hance her ap­peal­ingly lu­cid point of view. Morby him­self is a great con­tem­po­rary ex­am­ple of a for­mer punk who’s em­braced folk, so it makes sense given St Louis’s sim­i­lar pivot, and the fact that he re­leased First Songs on his Mare Records im­print of Woodsist. The al­bum was recorded at the home stu­dio of Kyle Thomas, aka King Tuff, in the lush, hill­side Mt Wash­ing­ton neigh­bour­hood of north­east Los An­ge­les. There couldn’t have been a more ap­pro­pri­ate set­ting for the work, a quiet up­stairs room with a view, the birds and breezes drift­ing past as the group worked. It’s this pal­pa­ble seren­ity, the tran­quil­lity of work­ing with friends, that em­anates from each groove.

There’s some­thing re­fresh­ing about lean­ing into what you have, rather than at­tempt­ing to fab­ri­cate or in­vent some­thing be­yond your­self. In the case of St Louis, such reliance is her most ap­par­ent strength. In a proud dis­play of un­fussy, straight­for­ward Mid­west­ern sim­plic­ity she evan­ge­lises and el­e­vates the very at­tributes key to the mid­dle of Amer­ica so of­ten mocked and dis­missed as ‘fly­over coun­try’. “Be­ing from the Mid­west means a cer­tain tone is wo­ven into one’s fab­ric,” Morby says in liner notes for the al­bum. “And ev­ery now and then, some­one comes along who has the power to con­vey that feel­ing in their ca­dence alone.” There’s per­haps no bet­ter en­dorse­ment for a song­writer who is un­abashedly her­self, prac­ti­cal to pro­found ef­fect.

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