Heidi Spencer & the Rare Birds / Heidi Spencer

Under Streetlight Glow

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On her first record in six years -- and her debut for Simon Raymonde's Bella Union imprint -- Heidi Spencer & the Rare Birds don't stray far from the meld of classic-era British folk, Americana, and shimmering, low-key rock that established their well-deserved reputation. That said, Spencer's songcraft, while always poignant, has grown immeasurably. Her focus lyrically and musically is sharper; more unsettling in terms of its ability to create indelible portraits of her protagonists and their constant hunger and yearning. Under Streetlight Glow is not a bright recording, its darkness and melancholy are pervasive. Spencer's Rare Birds are drummer/producer Bill Curtis, pianist Jesse Hrobar, David Gelting on upright bass, Matt Hendricks on guitar, and harmony vocalist Renee Hendrix. She also gets help from a small string section, a concertina, and a lap steel on some cuts. On album-opener "Alibi," Spencer yearns to solidify a love that is mercurial and disintegrating, even as she struggles to accept that demise. The title track, with its haunting acoustic guitars, backroom piano, brushed snare, and ghostly lap steel commences with the words: "Here I am, by my lonesome/laying low, laying low/Had enough, waitin' for my love to show/Under streetlight glow." The hurt in her voice saturates the track, but she shifts the narrative to an imaginary Brooklyn in 1940 to draw some metaphorical -- and perhaps metaphysical -- understanding of her longing and frustration. Other standouts include the lilting, parlor room country-rock in "Gone to France"; the languid "Red Sky," whose soulful vocal would carry the song's meaning even if she weren't singing words, and the skeletal "Carry Me On," on which Spencer, accompanying herself only on an acoustic guitar with Hendrix's deadpan harmony vocal, desires so ardently for the wind to carry away from an impossible situation; it feels like a prayer. Under Streetlight Glow makes no apologies for its melancholy; it is an album of meditation on longing, heartbreak, loss, and the difficult space between endings and starting over in the wreckage. The Rare Birds are a well-seasoned group who lend her all the support she needs without once pushing Spencer into emotional overload: they know these songs are loaded on their own. Under Streetlight Glow is a genuinely moving -- and beautifully performed -- record from start to finish.

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