Loretta Hagen – an award-winning folk artist from New Jersey — has been at this independent artist gig for many years now. I recall listening to her for the first time in 1993 when I acquired a copy of her self-titled album of twelve fine originals. But, that now seems like light years ago and I’m not going to discuss the past. Her new fourth album of eleven tracks on “Lucky Stars” – while I expected it to be good – I never expected the U-turn she made.
As much as I always appreciated Ms. Hagen’s folk-rootsy-Americana-country approach on previous albums this foray from the opening track “Where Are the Rainbows,” has her comfortably exploring a light jazzy lounge territory. It’s nice to hear Loretta spread her wings a little and take up a challenge. It isn’t anything terribly difficult but she has the mature voice for such a song. When the sax kicks in nice and mellow it supports Ms. Hagen brilliantly. Soulfully. Maia Sharp’s tenor sax places Loretta Hagen into a Madeleine Peyroux, Joy Eden Harrison (“I’ll Be All Right”) and Cassandra Wilson world. No mean feat. And Loretta sounds like she could eventually belong there. Jazz songs may just be Loretta’s future. Husband Gary Hagen’s gentle acoustic guitar is steady and the song is jazz station bound. Or at least – it should be.
Her last album “Mud and Stone” is still played on the folk radio stations and it received four nominations from the Just Plain Folk Awards. Having said that: Ms. Hagen returns to the traditional Loretta of the rich alto — and digs into some country-folk on track two with “Now That I’m Able,” and she’s in fine form.
In typical Hagen style, this is a highly polished song and maintains what many of her fans have come to enjoy about her. This is another “Money,” one of her best and most memorable songs from her previous album “Mud and Stone.”
Loretta always manages to splash some confection into her country-pop but she never makes it sound sugary. Her melodies have propulsion and her backing musicians absolutely understand the Loretta Hagen songbook and what kind of fuel is necessary to keep it aloft. Its pace is professional, nothing Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin or Kellie Pickler (“Red High Heels”) — wouldn’t wrap their voices around themselves. It has a little of the tradition of another New Jersey folk singer – Mary Chapin-Carpenter. Loretta, however, has gotten to the point in her career where her songs sound like…Loretta Hagen and absolutely no one else.
The title song “Lucky Stars,” has some Mary Chapin Carpenter style – which isn’t bad – and the guitar playing on this song is exceptional. Both Loretta and Gary Hagen play wonderfully entwined guitars. The backup vocalists have lots of spirit and it’s an excellent addition to fill out the primarily acoustic song. Loretta is in fine voice – probably the best of her career. The tonality is angelic yet possesses strength. This song has some of the best lead guitar I ever heard on a Loretta Hagen tune and I may say for an independent album — far more exceptional than I would have expected. An attractive way to close out a lovely tune. Inspiring and beautiful.
Loretta goes more upbeat on “This World of Ours,” and virtually tells everyone that every soul on this spinning globe is equal and matters. This is a little song but a dynamic one and it offers a continuation of concise clean acoustic guitars. Given the Loretta Hagen treatment, this is another jewel in her crown. It can summon emotions from the deepest places and Loretta’s vocals continue to be impeccable. There’s nothing challenging here it’s just that Loretta knows this terrain and is in her comfort zone. And when she is in that zone — she delivers with confidence.
Track 5 opens with a tender cassette recorded voice of Loretta’s late mother Vera, she is singing “A Little Street Where Old Friends Meet,” (written by Harold Woods & Gus Kahn in 1932) which leads into Loretta’s “I Will Send My Love,” — an acoustic ballad – a little other-worldly in that it’s a “message” written by Loretta’s mother from Heaven. It could have been hokey but not in the hands of someone as astute as Loretta. It’s a beauty.
A beauty in the same way as Cindy Bullen’s “As Long As You Love,” where her late 11-year old daughter who died from cancer assures them she will be with them “as long as you love.” Made even more poignant by the fact that Cindy’s oldest daughter sings her youngest sister’s part.
So long as these songs don’t get overly dramatic or bombastic they can be remarkable. Almost lullaby-like – it’s touching when an artist can share such personal feelings and transpose the emotions onto the listener. The song features the warm strains of Michael G. Ronstadt’s cello.
Michael has own duo album as well: (Aaron Nathans & Michael G. Ronstadt – Crooked Fiddle – 2014). Michael is the nephew of Linda Ronstadt and a great musician of his own.
“Break” is a medium tempo Americana song that deals with emotions and anxieties. Not an easy subject in a song. Everyone reaches their limits at times and Loretta’s voice is charged with the kind of wounded tone that can transfix an audience. My father once told me when I was writing some songs that I should focus more on something the audience can relate to. May have experienced themselves or might. He was right. Those are the songs that resonated. They always do. Loretta has that here and the guitar-work continues to be superlative.
Obviously, Loretta’s album attempts to be a positive message despite the difficulties many face daily. “Believe” is the opposite of “Break,” and it’s an ingenious follow-up. While not entirely religious the words are meant to give strength, to encourage and support someone who is listening alone in a darkened kitchen late at night with no one to talk to except — shadows. The musicians on this track are all affecting. And again, Loretta lays down one of her finest vocals.
What’s with all the one-word titles Loretta? Just kidding. “Ladders,” – continues with Loretta’s message songs or are they answer songs? “My hands are around the rails…holding on.” Aren’t we all? Loretta’s inflection in her lyric is lucid, phrasing in this song is golden. She gives it a smoky tone – I could hear Cassandra Wilson sing this in her deep soulful and bluesy voice. Loretta has a definite talent for well-decorated lyrics tied with meaning but not preachy. This is a tough love song in some respects. The three last songs – “Break,” “Believe,” and “Ladders” form a special trilogy — intentional or not — I am not certain Loretta meant it that way.
Loretta’s voice is an affecting instrument now more than ever. The maturity is evident. With a full band on this album, she is exuberant and her choice of new material is not all obviously from her standard tune bag. Loretta is stretching her style and it sounds good. It may have started with tunes from “Mud and Stone,” but the songs are serious without being stuffy. The one toe into the water of jazz sounds really ambitious. Maybe a little more blues next time — I could hear that possibility.
There’s something here for everyone – but, Loretta always offered that. She paced each album with songs that were labored over. Loretta and Gary Hagen (her husband) produced this album themselves and the investment is obvious. Recorded in West Milford, NJ the album nevertheless exudes the warmth and soil of real Americana music. It’s not produced with lots of gloss and polish. It’s listenable.
Criticism? I’d like to hear Loretta rock out just a little more. She needs a song like Pickler’s “Red High Heels.” A little, just a little Keith Richards’ type guitar hook and then go full throttle country. I know Gary can strangle and bend the strings like that song and Loretta’s voice is far more powerful and distinctive than Kellie’s. Or…
Hire a fiery fiddler and do it the way John Denver did on his “Thank God, I’m a Country Boy.” Loretta can do it and it would be fun to see her walk out onstage and just wrangle the audience out of their seats. It would surprise everyone and it would be joyful. Because she hasn’t done it? No. Because Loretta Hagen at this time in her career — could do it — and she’d be great.
Musically, this album is well-disciplined (as all of her and Gary’s work has been) and tied together with authentic love for the music. What more can a listener or fan ask for?
I like that Michael G. Ronstadt made an appearance – he should grace more of Loretta’s works. I think it’s time for some well-known musicians to make guest appearances on Loretta’s albums. This is a woman who opened for folk legend Pete Seeger – in my book that means she matters. Get me Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s phone number he isn’t busy….
Loretta closes with “Welcome Spring” – an upbeat soulful tune with reminisces of the way they sang songs in the 60’s. You know “Windy” by the Association had that wistful breezy flute thing flowing through it. Marianne Osiel provides the essential good mood in this piece. Loretta leaves you with what she usually always leaves you with – optimism throughout her music. I don’t think Loretta has ever written a depressing song. She does remind you that the world isn’t such a bad place after all. And for Loretta Hagen – she still manages to make it look easy.
The album art is a beautifully designed full-color die-cut four-panel with a stitched lyric book. Designed and photographed by Gary Hagen with the layout by Amilyn Lanning. Back cover photography by Janet Streng. All the musicians are listed on the inside front cover – too numerous to mention here.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review/commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as a reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.
John Apice / No Depression / Written August 2017