4 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Before listening to Rachel Harrington’s outstanding third album Celilo Falls, before even researching anything more than a single Google hit about the Oregon native, I suspected I was going to enjoy what she had to offer.
No, it wasn’t the heartworn portrait gracing the front cover, as attention-grabbing as that is. It was the fact that her publishing and label name is SkinnyDennis. Now, I don’t know if this is intended as a tip of the hat to Dennis Sanchez himself or simply acknowledgement of Guy Clark’s brilliance (“Here’s to you ol’ Skinny Dennis / The only one I think I will miss / I can hear your low bass singin’ / Sweet and low like a gift you’re bringin'” — “L.A. Freeway”). Either way, I’m in.
Still, it takes more than a cool moniker to impress me. Heck, it takes more than having Ronnie McCoury drop by on mandolin, although that certainly helps.
What’s it take to impress?
Let’s start with a baker’s dozen songs exploring the heart of matters, songs that illuminate to reveal the beauty of shadow, songs that are actually from the writer’s experience and speak to her surroundings. All but one is written by Harrington with the lone cover being a retooling of an exceptional Art Hanlon song.
Factor in a considerably commanding vocal presence, one that brings to mind the finest of singers from the wide-open Americana field — Eliza Gilkyson, Tracy Grammer, Pieta Brown, and the like — while being individually distinctive. Whether raising her voice in magnificent anticipation (“He Started Building My Mansion in Heaven Today”), purring with playful flirtation (“You’ll Do”), or soaring with measured hope (“Where Are You”), Harrington commands listeners’ attention.
Establishing a rich soundscape built largely from acoustic instruments is another positive to consider. Dan Salini does double duty on fiddle and pedal steel and he contribute greatly to the rustic atmosphere of the album. Colby Sander’s banjo and Dobro similarly color Harrington’s songs.
Inspired by conversation with her grandfather, “Bury Me Close” contains a sentiment that could have only emanated from a lifetime of experience: “Bury me close beside her / I know in her arms I belong / My only true love / O you should have seen her dance.” While slightly awkward in print, when sung the lyrics are sincerely haunting.
Harrington finds further motivation in the words of her other grandfather when she sings “He started building my mansion in Heaven today.” Crafting an elaborate tapestry of spiritual inspiration from a conversational phrase takes exceptional talent and Harrington reveals herself to be a master throughout both the album and accompanying libretto.
“The Last Jubilee” follows a comparable theme, revealing that “We got John and June in the backup choir / and Hank is drunk on love” in the celestial jam that follows the evocation that is “Don’t be blue if you don’t wake up today / just pick up your harp and play.”
Not every song contemplates what follows this mortal coil, although such is a common refrain.
The two songs that introduce the album — “House of Cards” and “Here In My Bead” — look at the abandonment of love in different ways and each of these are dissimilar to the European tour-of- memories that is “Goodbye Amsterdam.” “Pretty Saro” is artfully reimagined and serves as an extension of Harrington’s “Let Me Sleep in Your Arms Tonight,” sharing more than a little of the yearnsome mood of that original composition.
More elaborate and muted perhaps than both The Bootlegger’s Daughter (2007) and City of Refuge (2008) but as impressive and engaging, Celilo Falls is also more fully realized than those previous releases. It reveals Rachel Harrington to be the equal of some of the most lauded singer-songwriters of her generation, including Kasey Chambers with whom Harrington shares more than a passing stylistic similarity.
Much like the Columbia River falls drowned beneath a reservoir from which the album takes its title, Harrington’s album is rich in story and memory: while features remain hidden, one is provided hope that secrets and history will one day again be revealed.