Meg Baird is the ever-restless lead vocalist from Espers. Dear Companion is her first solo album on Drag City. Full of traditional songs, well-chosen covers, and originals, it stands outside the freak folk scene, and doesn't remind the listener of her primary band, either. Accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, Baird employs humor together with her melancholy, as she does on the title cut that opens the set. Alongside the lyric and instrumental frames, the backdrop at the beginning is also saturated with the spoken word rantings of an outrageously self-obsessed opportunist as Baird sings. She fades from view quickly and Baird digs into the tune full bore, letting her voice express plaintively the weight of the song's lyric. A strummed autoharp in her chosen instrument for a cover of Chris Thompson's "River Song," and she double-tracks her own airy voice to underscore the meaning in the refrain. Her reading of the age-old tragedy "The Cruelty of Barbary Allen" is stellar. Her thin, reedy upper register strips the narrative from the music, which becomes the film stock this tale is told upon. One of the real treasures here is Baird's version of Jimmy Webb's classic "Do What You Gotta Do." She gets the depth of the loss, the acceptance in its refrain: "It's my own fault/What happens to my heart." And she means it -- with a lilting harmony vocal a half step behind in places, she offers freedom and empathy, as all the while the protagonist's heart is busted wide. She sings: "I had my eyes wide open/From the very start/You never, never lied to me...." This is the actual price of love, to allow the Other whatever is necessary for his or her own good. Baird's version tops Webb's more orchestrated one.
The first of two originals is "Riverhouse in Tinicum." Baird's guitar playing, while somewhat rudimentary, is also quite compelling; a keyboard enters here, and the guitars are double-tracked in reverb as a gently swirling soundscape hovers in the backdrop. Her words are beautifully cryptic while revealing a narrative space nonetheless. The most surprising cover is of John Dawson's (New Riders of the Purple Sage) "All I Ever Wanted." The original is an uncharacteristic psychedelic love song from NRPS' self-titled debut. In Baird's hands, it becomes a shimmering yet foreboding warning as well as surrender -- one where the truth has to be told, but the protagonist gives up, confessing she wanted nothing more than to be loved. The counterpoint guitars and multi-tracked vocals bring a bittersweet, lovely melody to the fore and allow the lyrics to gain authority as the tune progresses. It's simply gorgeous. That's the sum of Dear Companion. It's a subtle, skeletal work of beauty that doesn't fit in well with the overflowing river of singer/songwriters out there. Baird is an interpreter as well as a fine guitarist and songwriter. She allows the "folk" to stand out in these songs, and also brings out the intrinsic -- and sometimes profound -- beauty in their sadness; she makes stories of betrayal, loss, determination, honesty, and freedom contemporary in these hidden gems, no matter how old the tunes. Dear Companion is one of those albums whose secrets are given up genuinely, but very slowly. Beautiful. Espers fans should greet it with applause, and those who love the music of Sandy Denny or Jacqui McShee should also enjoy this. It's simply wonderful.