Carrie Rodriguez

Love and Circumstance

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Cover albums by artists known for writing their own material can be double-edged swords. It's a tricky balance to put your own stamp on material that others have created without losing the original's unique qualities. For every illuminating spotlight into their formative influences such as Bowie's Pin Ups or Willie Nelson's Stardust, there is an equally misguided dud like half of Bob Dylan's Self Portrait. Singer/songwriter Rodriguez gets it right, though, with her first indie album after two impressive but commercially disappointing tries for a major label that she seemed too idiosyncratic for in the first place. It also helps that most of the dozen tunes she tackles aren't particularly well-known, so Rodriguez isn't competing with versions that the general public has a vested interest in. Actually, if you didn't check the liner notes, it might seem that M. Ward's "Eyes on the Prize" or Richard Thompson's "Waltzing's for Dreamers" are Rodriguez-penned since their breezy, easy flowing melodies feel similar to her own. Rodriguez also interprets songs written by her family, in particular father David's "When I Heard Gypsy Davy Sing," and one from her great aunt, the only Spanish-language-sung track here, "La Punalada Trapera." While most of the material is ballad based, Lee Townsend's classy production and veteran players such as pedal/lap steel master Greg Leisz, along with Bill Frisell, keep the sound fresh and vibrant. That's especially critical when Rodriguez attempts standards such as a stripped-down rendition of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and Merle Haggard's "I Started Loving You Again." Her fiddle skills, always impressive in concert, generally take a backseat as she concentrates on her sweet and poignant vocals. The bigger, more layered approach on Lucinda Williams' "Steal Your Love" and Little Village's obscure "Big Love" help make them centerpieces that both ground the disc and allow Rodriguez to show she's as powerful on them as on the more sparse arrangements that dominate the set list. She rescues David Rawlings' and Gillian Welch's little-heard "I Made a Lover's Prayer" and bolsters it with drums and dark, strumming, even aggressive, guitars highlighted by a stunning Frisell solo. It might be a holding pattern until Rodriguez can compose another album's worth of material, but Love and Circumstance is beautifully conceived, passionately performed, and every bit the equal of the other two terrific releases in her solo catalog.

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