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Songs Of The Week 2024: Take 2

Neil Morton


Free Treasure: Adrianne Lenker

Adianne Lenker’s sixth solo album Bright Future sounds almost like a practice session, a bootleg of first or second take demos that recalls the looseness of the Basement Tapes. But spontaneity is its strength, befitting the Big Thief singer’s glorious songwriting. Our Song Of The Week at is Free Treasure, an indie folk jewel.

Big Thief were formed in Brooklyn but they’ve always felt more at home in a rural location. It’s the same with her new collaborators. Lenker gathered co-producer Philip Weinrobe and musicians Mat Davidson, Nick Hakim, Josefin Runsteen and her brother Noah to play piano, guitar, fiddle and percussion at the Double Infinity studio in New England in the autumn of 2022. As Mojo put it, their music is ‘as pure as an upstate creek, their commune vibe generating an old-school, vegetable-dyed-in-the-wool hippy aura’.

Welcome to the Woodland Tapes. Lenker’s melodic and lyrical gifts flourish in such an intimate, bucolic setting. The front porch has moved indoors. Away from her main band she prefers minimalism. Free Treasure, a co-write with Jim Krivchenia, is cosmic poetry, a large doffed country hat to Gillian Welch and the McGarrigles. Her voice, so fragile and vulnerable it might shatter at any point, is achingly beautiful. Weinrobe describes her singing as ‘so honest and so true’ . ‘She’s willing to go to the edges of her skill without fear or embarrassment.’

Stove light glows like a fire

We’re sitting on the kitchen floor

Just when I thought I couldn’t feel more

I feel a little more

I feel a little more


Patience and pleasure

Time and attention

Love without measure

Love without measure

Bright Future, an ironic title if ever there was one, was cut straight to tape, the playing and production polished but unvarnished, those little imperfections contributing to the down-home feel. We are in the room with them. The 32-year-old Indianapolis-born Lenker’s songs explore romance and heartbreak from different perspectives amid life’s impermanence, the search for emotional truth and her belief that we are destroying the planet.

Lenker and Davidson, aka alt-country artist Twain, performed a lovely version of Free Treasure on the Jimmy Fallon Show. The track is an appreciation of the gifts of nature and the little things in life and in a relationship, the seemingly humdrum.

There’s a guy on the nape of my neck

And he hangs out there all day

He quantifies my every thought

And tells me not to play

He tells me not to play

We lay around for hours

Talk about childhood pain

Mom and dad and past lives too

I can tell you anything

I can say anything

Lenker’s complicated, unconventional back story helps to explain the disarming honesty of her songs. She was born into a spiritual commune before travelling round in a van with her nomadic musical parents, who later divorced. Her music became a calling amid the turbulence: ‘It was this thing that was always there for me that I could pour my heart into safely.’ She began playing guitar at six and wrote her first song at eight. Her father took her to open mic nights when she was 12; her first album followed at 13 and dad managed her career until she broke away.

To a bright future. Sadness As A Gift, which could be the wording on Lenker’s badge of honour, is as poignant as Free Treasure. More unbearably so. Runsteen’s violin and Davidson’s harmonies build around Lenker’s strummed acoustic in a lament to a relationship that will never quite end (‘Chance has shut her shining eyes/ And turned her face away’).

‘I still like looking at the world around me with softness and an open heart,’ she told the New York Times. ‘To live in this life is to be burdened by the heaviness of whatever existence is. I feel that burden through each person I know – it’s like a loop. If you can really allow yourself to feel it, your sadness doesn’t have to be so scary. You wouldn’t feel it if you didn’t have this immense care – and so you can see your own love through the lens of the sadness, which is a beautiful thing.’

Lenker’s two last solo records, Songs and Instrumentals, released in tandem in 2020, were recorded in the early days of lockdown, a period she spent grieving for the world and her own world. On Bright Future she opted for a more relaxed regime. ‘Quiet can also be powerful and intense – when I’m just sitting and playing, I like that feeling of not having to push at all. And I really wanted to push into the naturalness of not pushing.’

Other standouts? Real House, a collection of profound childhood memories propelled by Hakim’s deliberately discordant piano; the charming, harmony-rich No Machine; the exuberant, recast Big Thief favourite Vampire Empire notable for Lenker’s Dylanesque delivery; and the desolate heartache of piano ballad Ruined, the oldest song of the set. On Real House, a paean to lost innocence and so-called because she never had one, Lenker sings: ‘When I was seven, I saw the first film that made me scared/ And I thought of this whole world ending/ I thought of dying unprepared.’

She is still having nightmares about ecological disaster, as in the mischievous wordplay of Donut Seam (‘This whole world is dying/ Don’t it seem like a good time for swimming/ Before all the water disappears?’). But as long as there’s time she still has pure love and fractured love to write about. Music to treasure.


America, Come: Aoife O’Donovan

Irish American songwriter Aoife O’Donovan’s remarkable tribute to the empowerment of women through the suffragette movement, All My Friends, provides our Song Of The Week at The stirring America, Come revisits the words of activist Carrie Chapman Catt to reflect on ‘what has changed – and what hasn’t – for American women in 100 years since gaining the right to vote’.

Inspired by two commissions to write music to commemorate the anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which enshrined women’s right to vote, for the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra and the Massachusetts FreshGrass Foundation, O’Donovan researched the speeches and letters of suffragette Chapman Catt, founder of the League of Women Voters in 1920.

As the Boston-born, Brooklyn-based musician says: ‘Woman has fought bravely, and hard, so damn hard, for her place in American society. And now, in 2024, she is watching her work crumble.’ America, Come implores us to commit to democracy values which many believe have been eroded in recent times. The chorus of this swirling, atmospheric track echoes a century-old address by Chapman Catt…

What is the democracy for which the world is battling

For which we offer up our man power,

Woman power, money power, our all?

Her fourth solo album was produced by O’Donovan, her husband Eric Jacobsen and Darren Schneider and features a lustrous supporting cast: Sierra Hull on mandolin, Noam Pikelny on banjo, New York chamber orchestra The Knights, brass quartet The Westerlies and The San Francisco Girls Chorus. The more we hear those synchronised, anthemic voices, the more we are convinced this soundtrack could transfer to the Broadway stage. All we need is a script.

America, Come is propelled by the electric bass of Alan Hampton and Dawes drummer Griffin Goldsmith. With a nod to Leonard Cohen’s Democracy, it references Lady Liberty, the ironic symbol of a democracy in which women were denied a voice, never mind a vote. ‘It’s disappointing that we’re still facing so many of the same inequalities,’ O’Donovan told The Colorado Sound. ‘There’s a part where she implores ageing senators to step aside to make room for new blood and new ideas, and it’s almost hilarious to think this is still happening today.’

Some of you are old, I know

Are you willing that those who take your place

Might blame you for not keeping pace?

Is there any gain for you, or gain for the nation to delay?

Don’t drive us away, don’t wait...

The title track was the first single to be unveiled, released on Chapman Catt’s birthday to mark the movement’s 1920 crusade to persuade Tennessee to become the final signatory and make the proposed amendment law. ‘The seeds of this song predate the entire project,’ explains the Crooked Still and I’m With Her artist. ‘All My Friends is about camaraderie, companionship, people united in the common struggle against oppression. I imagine the women literally marching in Tennessee as the dawn lifted over the fields. I imagine the struggle of needing just one more state to ratify, and just how much weight that final vote held. I imagine the collective longing for the country of our birth to open her arms.’

Over The Finish Line recalls O’Donovan’s previous release The Age Of Apathy, which stresses the importance of commitment – complacency must be resisted. It features the divine harmonies of Anaïs Mitchell, the songwriter behind the hit musical Hadestown, based on Greek mythology, and the perfect collaborator for that aforementioned Broadway project if she can ever summon the energy again.

Like the track simply called Daughters, the gorgeous Someone To Follow was written for her daughter as O’Donovan imagines what hopes and expectations the mother of Chapman Catt might have had for her in the 1800s. ‘These bold and brave women from a different time, who were their mothers? And what were they thinking? It was scary to be a powerful woman in those days. I really did start writing with that in mind. Those are words that I think every parents can relate to. You want your children to be leaders, to be the ones who are fighting the good fight.’

The majestic Crisis is named after a Chapman Catt speech. ‘I couldn’t help but feel that it could be written and delivered today,’ says O’Donovan. With its jazz inflections and glorious brass and string arrangements, we hear strains of another mighty Mitchell, Joni. ‘Wow, how was this written in 1916. This is insane.’ As O’Donovan sings, the boulder is gathering speed.

Oh America, look up, the star is getting nearer

It’s time to shout aloud to everybody who can hear us

The woman’s hour has struck

The woman’s hour is now

The woman’s hour is here

O’Donovan has accustomed us to ambitious projects, last year reimagining Bruce Springsteen’s classic oeuvre Nebraska in its entirety. On All My Friends, after eight original songs, she treats us to ‘a kind of coda’, a rendition of Bob Dylan’s early folk ballad The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll, an inventive reworking of a tale of racist outrage that remains as relevant as it did then. Those of us who still prefer the rawness of Dylan’s stripped-back original about a black maid killed by a privileged white man who escaped with a six-month sentence cannot help but applaud O’Donovan’s determination to honour the subjugated as well as the inspirational women who came before.

Her crystalline voice has a strength that belies its delicacy. She first performed the Dylan cover during a performance with the National Symphony Orchestra on the lawn of the Capitol in 2017, a few months after Donald Trump took office. Her friend Gabriel Kahane’s stunning arrangement borrows its opening from the Battle Hymn of the Republic. She decided to include the song as an epilogue to the new album. ‘There’s a parallel story there, injustice then, injustice now, and how we react to it. The starkness in the folk melody haunts me, and though the final phase is ominous, it reminds me there is an urgency we can’t ignore.’

O’Donovan would not describe herself as a protest singer or political heavyweight but justice is a subject close to her heart. Democracy is too fragile to sit back and say nothing. She has created a beautiful homage to the women of the past who fought for a better future. Her desire for women to exercise their vote in the forthcoming presidential election is a strong undercurrent. We still await the first woman president, and women’s rights in certain states remain undermined. ‘Suffrage is coming… you know it.’ Sadly, one suspects the suffering may last a little longer.


The World Turns: John Smith

‘I’ve never felt this good about a record ever. I tend to think, I hope this is good… With The Living Kind, I know it.’ John Smith’s burgeoning band of admirers agree. Our Song Of The Week at is drawn from it: The World Turns. The Essex-born, Devon-raised songwriter has emerged from a dark period in his family’s fortunes to discover ‘a new way to feel’.

The album was recorded in just four days in February last year in producer Joe Henry’s remote home in Harpswell, Maine; the creative process there took six weeks with Henry – dubbed Captain by his English guest – co-writing two of the tracks (Silver Mine and Lily).

Smith relished the serenity of the location despite the sub-zero temperatures outside, feeding off a stellar cast of musicians: Henry himself and his multi-instrumentalist son Levon, superb jazz bassist Ross Gallagher, Patrick Warren on keyboards and Jay Bellerose and Joshua Van Tassel, who share drum duties.

Smith was keen to create an intimate, atmospheric record, inspired by three classic albums: Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden, John Martyn’s Solid Air and Joni Mitchell’s Hejira. This sequel to 2021’s highly impressive The Fray tells of a period spent rebuilding lives when the Smith family’s world turned upside down within three traumatic months at the start of the pandemic: his mother began radiotherapy for breast cancer, his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and his wife suffered a life-challenging miscarriage.

The poignant opening track Candle (‘There are days when I find it easy and there are days I don’t find at all/ When I reach for the hands that held me and they’re waving at me as I fall’) tackles his father’s dementia, Milestones is a gorgeous ode to his young daughter, the upbeat, call-and-response title track celebrates hope itself and The World Turns, a collaboration with Iain Archer, is an optimistic love song dedicated to his wife. The theme here is healing, a turn for the better, confronting despair and remaining positive.

The couple sold their house in Sussex and relocated his parents from Spain to a new home ahead of treatment. ‘This is a song about holding tight as the world carries on, unflinching,’ he says. ‘Some days it seems that life is carrying on about its immense business and there is nothing any of us can do. I do believe that if you can find something or someone good to hold on to, it becomes almost possible to stay balanced.’

I gotta find a new way to feel

Caught in a spiral

I spin like a wheel

Pull away with me darling

To some innocent field

We’ll be stronger if we soften and yield

The world turns

And I still love you

The world turns

I won’t turn from you

As the world turns

Moving under our feet

Smith told the Americana magazine Holler:‘When I started writing these songs, I knew immediately what was happening; in the space of three years, I had essentially become a different person and had a lot more to deal with. I wrote the songs just as we were beginning to rebuild our lives. They are about changing for the better in the face of loss, celebrating the good things and facing up to the bad. Trying to keep an eye on the centre, holding on to those we love and working towards a better future.’

A consummate guitarist and soulful singer, Smith alternates between acoustic, electric and slide, picking his old Martin or pedalling his inner Martyn. That percussive style is his trademark. ‘I was singing and playing how I’ve always wanted to… and these were the songs I had always wanted to write. I do feel without my guitar and without song-writing I would have lost my mind, many times. I had finally got out of my own way. It might be the first record I’ve made that really sounds like me, and what I’m trying to do.’

We described The Fray as vaccine for the soul when we chose the hypnotic Deserving as a Song Of The Week in 2021. The World Turns offers further balm as Smith finds shelter from a personal storm. ‘Outside it’s raging and we don’t hear a sound.’ He is winning the battle.


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