“I ain’t a good girl, though everybody thinks I am / I gotta mind that’s dirty as the bottom of a coffee can,” bubbles Dori Freeman on “I Am,” buoyed by a toe-tapping beat that’s anything but nasty. After three albums of beautiful country-folk songs, has this gifted Virginian — who’s cited everyone from Iris DeMent to Peggy Lee to the Louvin Brothers as influences — traded low-key charisma for a wilder, bad-ass persona? Not exactly. While her gorgeous new album, Ten Thousand Roses, is filled with pointed reflections on class, inequality, desire, and self-determination, Freeman issues her blunt observations with unfailing poise, giving the album a quietly subversive power.
She delivers a pep talk to a woman done wrong in the brooding epic “The Storm,” asking “When you gonna let him go?” and continuing, “You don’t need no man,” a sentiment amplified by “Nobody Nothin’,” a joyous ode to independence that declares, “Don’t go trying to please anybody / Unless somebody is pleasing you too.” She’s all for love on equal terms, but being alone is OK, too, which can seem like a radical idea even today.
Freeman’s graceful singing takes on an edge when she plays the protagonist. In the thumping “I Wanted To,” she rebounds from rejection and comes to her senses, exclaiming, “You always wanted to be all alone / So take my name and number off your phone.” The melancholy “Walk Away,” a duet with Logan Ledger, recounts a heartbreak scenario in the tradition of classic Nashville twosomes like George and Tammy.
Whatever the situation, Freeman doesn’t hesitate to stick up for herself, exhibiting breezy abandon on the jangly title track as she shouts, “If you really want me, then show me you do / I ain’t about to be waiting around.” Mixing pride and resentment, the twangy “Appalachian” celebrates her roots (“I come from the holler … I’m a Cripple Creek pearl”) then laments systemic inequality (“All the people in power / Keep us under their boot”) and prejudice (“If you’re poor you’re ‘stupid and blind’”) with uncharacteristic, albeit justifiable, anger.
Assuming the producer’s reins from Teddy Thompson, who oversaw the previous three albums, Freeman’s spouse (and drummer) Nicholas Falk crafts a striking backdrop of electric and acoustic guitars, banjo, and mandolin, defining each element clearly, while humming organ and rippling piano add extra texture. These subtle details never compete with Freeman’s luminous voice, but they make an absorbing listen all on their own when she’s not front and center.
Written almost entirely by Freeman, plus one tune from Falk, Ten Thousand Roses closes with a left-field cover, revisiting “Only You Know” from a 1975 Dion album produced by Phil Spector. This breathtaking track is a moving expression of empathy in which Freeman tenderly sings, “Only you know what you have been through / There’s better things you’re gonna get into,” offering consolation after trauma. It’s the perfect coda to a thoughtful album that doesn’t shrink from dark emotional truths, yet never embraces despair, providing the kind of honest hope the world needs now.