Zoe Muth & the Lost High Rollers
4 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Through the efforts of an area radio host, I’ve been following the music and career of Seattle’s Zoe Muth for a couple years. Favourably reminiscent of early Emmylou, Muth also has elements of Iris DeMent and Kelly Hogan in her voice, as well as Heather Myles, minus a bit of the tonk.
I fall in love with voices easily if infrequently. That means I’m selective in what I truly embrace, but once I’m in, I’m in. That’s how I’ve felt about Muth since day one, and nothing I’ve heard since has caused me to reconsider that position.
First came the eponymous album of 2009 or thereabouts. Songs like “You Only Believe Me When I’m Lying,” as strong a career kick-off as one could hope for, and the more evocative “The Last Bus” with its tale of a guy who hasn’t really thought out the next step, only that it isn’t going to be taken in Harlan, served as solid foundations for a career that has slowly built momentum.
Last year’s Starlight Hotel had a bit more of the south mixed into its mood, but maintained the presence of the steel guitar. Muth’s voice only gained from the assurance that comes from having a bit of success, however that is measured. The album sported one of the finest song titles a High Fidelity fan could ask for: “If I Can’t Trust You With a Quarter (How Can I Trust You With My Heart)”; that the song lived up to the billing was entirely a bonus: “When I heard that jukebox start / I knew that Cupid’s dart had missed its mark.” As the second product, the album may have been unfairly taken for granted, not given the due granted of its predecessor.
Now comes the release of an EP with five covers and a single original. Given that Muth has released two albums of very strong original material, one may be a bit surprised that she has gone to the well of covers this early; it took Steve Earle a dozen albums and twenty years before he ran to ground with Townes. Still, covers seem to be a comfortable and popular position of fallback of late so one isn’t going to judge Muth harshly, especially considering the quality of the music contained on the 22-minute Old Gold.
The disc opens with a beautiful rendition of Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s “Heart Like a Wheel” that does nothing to lessen the Emmylou Harris comparables. Listening to this up-tempo, spritely take, one realizes that Muth has reinvented the mood of this melancholy piece into something approaching classic country; she has turned the unthinkable into a radio sing-a-long: “They say that death is a tragedy, it comes once and it’s over / But my only wish is for that deep dark abyss, ’cause what’s the use of living with no true lover.” Quite lovely, given the circumstance.
For contrast, Muth gets positively maudlin with a tremendous reading of “I’ve Been Deceived,” Charlie Feathers’ first single from 1955. Pure-country, that. Her own “Walking the Line” complements the selected offerings and includes one of those lyrical combinations that just lingers: “Sometimes when I can’t find the truth / I just have to make believe.” It is a country narrative that again evokes the use of the word “classic,” only this time it isn’t the sound or the approach under consideration, it is the performance.
The second side of the EP (because I still picture an EP as an extended vinyl 12″) kicks off with John Prine’s (who Muth had name-checked in the previously mentioned “If I Can’t Trust You With a Quarter…”) “Maureen, Maureen,” and does her hero proud, I’m sure. She again picks up the tempo with a splendid “Country Blues,” though she brings plenty of uptown to the Dock Boggs tune. The disc closes with Muth taking on Janis Joplin on “Get It While You Can,” but as elsewhere the song is more reinvented than interpreted.
The mini-album ends too soon, leaving the listener longing for more—where would Muth had gone next given another six songs? Satisfying still and completely enjoyable, Old Gold allows listeners another opportunity to find a gateway to the magical voice and music of Zoe Muth.
Given that I’ve always bought Muth’s music via download, I don’t know if the line-up of the Lost High Rollers has changed since their debut, but things sound consistent when compared to Starlight Hotel. There is pedal steel from Dave Harmonson everywhere, and that is of benefit.
The drumming (Greg Nies) is for the most part unobtrusive, and Ethan Lawton lays out some nice mandolin, especially on the closing number. (There is a reason I don’t read press clippings and one-sheets before listening and starting to write—they take the best lines, including my comparisons to Emmylou and Iris DeMent—not that those were a huge stretch or anything, but still….)