Angular rhythms and intricate guitar work abound in Madison Cunningham’s new album, Who Are You Now — but that doesn’t mean the project is an overly erudite listen. On the contrary, many of its melodies are earworms, the kind that sneak up on you while you’re busy focusing on all the complex time signatures and tempos going on in the foreground.
In the project’s first single, “Pin it Down,” Cunningham’s dizzying musical precision provides a satisfying contrast to her light, silvery vocals. Especially when the guitars are at their crunchiest, the singer’s voice almost serves as a duet partner to the music. This dynamic comes close to literal in the bluesy “Trouble Found Me,” in which effortlessly acrobatic vocals mirror a snarling guitar line.
There are layers of personal history to be heard in this project, from the singer-songwriter’s formative early days as the oldest of five in a musical family to her recent tenure as a radio performer on Chris Thile’s folk-flavored variety show, Live From Here. Over the course of the latter experience, Cunningham had to master the art of self-assurance onstage, and it shows. Each of the album’s songs conveys the sense of being fully in its right place.
In “Dry as Sand,” one of the project’s quietest moments, Cunningham’s virtuosic playing gives way to a plodding soulfulness. Her voice floating loosely over the track, she isn’t afraid to slow down or pause in the note for a beat or two in order to fully convey the weight of song’s sentiment. Her voice even quavers toward atonality once or twice, in moments that are all the more powerful for their scarcity. She lets her voice bend and unravel, soothing the anxiety of the record’s more unsettled, antsier aspects.
The seventh track in an album full of songs that showcase Cunningham’s technical mastery, “Dry as Sand” taps into a need for simplicity that the listener hasn’t even realized they had. In a way, it’s her greatest feat of timing yet.