Depending on your state of mind, Cinder Well could be either the best or worst thing to listen to in a lockdown. The brainchild of Amelia Baker, a native Californian lately residing in Ireland’s County Clare, the absorbing No Summer draws its unsettling power from a sense of isolation, an uncomfortable aloneness that might inspire profound, probably difficult, insights or simply amplify the corrosive anxiety of the times. Either way, this stark album hums with a harrowing beauty.
Produced by Baker and recorded in a converted church in Washington state, No Summer is nearly a one-woman show. She sings, plays guitar, organ, and a little fiddle, and wrote all the material, apart from the traditional tunes. The only other musicians are Marit Schmidt (viola) and Mae Kessler (violin), both veterans of previous Cinder Well efforts, whose strings create an ominous, transfixing drone underscoring the stark grace of Baker’s performance.
Don’t be deceived by the apparent simplicity. Though it can be tagged a doom folk project, a simple label doesn’t do justice to the subtleties of No Summer. Baker’s sober, deliberate singing indicates a fierce intent to maintain control in desperate circumstances; when she allows a hint of urgency to creep into her voice, chaos seems to loom. Meanwhile, her spare, deceptively sophisticated playing bears traces of more extravagant approaches, with tantalizing fills that could easily be repurposed for psychedelia.
From one angle, No Summer is a straightforward exercise in careful roots-music archaeology. Leading off the album, Roscoe Holcomb’s yearning “Wandering Boy” (with additional lyrics by Baker) celebrates a mother’s love as protection from the perilous outside world, while “The Cuckoo,” Jean Ritchie’s somber diatribe against romance, warns calmly, “Never give your affections to the love of a man … He’ll turn his back on you, and he’ll walk square away,” counseling self-reliance instead. On a gentler note, her lilting adaptation of fiddler Eden Hammons’ instrumental “Queen of the Earth, Child of the Skies” feels like a cooling break after the heated emotions she explores in such mournful originals as “Fallen” and the title track.
The leisurely nine-minute “Our Lady’s” could pass for a song from the archives, though it isn’t. Assuming the viewpoint of an abandoned Irish mental asylum, Baker remembers “the chefs and thieves / And the drunks and the babies out of wedlock” who spent time there, culminating with dreams of destruction and purification to wash away the anguish of the past. This harsh vision of closure still feels strangely hopeful when she concludes, “There is joy there.”
No Summer concludes gently with “From Behind the Curtain,” a letter from Ireland to a friend in need back in the States. “I know your father shot himself and you were not told,” Baker says, her voice slowly gathering force as she continues, “I’m here to tell you that the world is epic and wrong.” For all the darkness, she ends her message by listening to the wind “because it sounds like the waves / In California,” mixing empathy and a dash of homesickness, to touching effect.
Amelia Baker’s austere music doesn’t offer false comfort, but embodies an unbreakable resilience that’s especially valuable in tough times. No Summer is a work for all seasons.