Many of us have been waiting eagerly for over a year for Carrie Elkin’s new album, The Penny Collector. I’d heard some songs from The Penny Collector at last year’s Folk Alliance International (FAI) Conference in Kansas City. Carrie shared them in Showcases there, at times joined by her husband Danny Schmidt and other talented guests. That wait will be rewarded when the record releases this Friday.
The songs seemed a departure for her, driving deeper, sharing intimate personal depths at a time of encompassing pain. Carrie had lost her beloved father, Richard Elkin, shortly before that. My sense of that change in her music remains. And, though the songs don’t carry a burden of sadness for the listener, they do share a power of feeling and a lavender blush of melancholy and regret.
It’s an album full of power and grace, melodies that carry you into life ahead. Songs that, before long, seem like old friends, rounds of sound you had grown up with. Yet, full, too, with surprise and the catchy repetition of delicious beats and resonant echoes.
And, it’s full of Carrie’s marvelous voice. Angels listen as she sings, it seems to me her sound has gone from grand to greater, lifted higher. Perhaps, the unwelcome seasoning of loss and the blessed spice of beginning has steeped the already powerful brew.
One song that stretches from beginning to end of her experience – in a fashion – is the opening song of the album, “New Mexico,” that reflects lyrically and melodically the timeline of her own life experience.
I can feel the drums inside/I can hear the buffalo
I can feel the up-rise/I can hear the Spanish cries/On the Pueblo
This is my New Mexico/Thi is where my battle cries
This is where my father died/This is how the falcon flies
This is where my poet lives/This is where my feathers rise
This is where the wreckage lies/This is where I first came alive/On the Pueblo
The words carry her story against the larger physical, cultural, and mythological landscape she was born into and was raised within. The song carries one of those lovely and moving melodic frames I spoke of that has me singing along by the third listen as if I’ve known the song lifelong.
Not that it’s a knock on this record, but I’ve wished that the album included a song excised from the final waxing. It’s a somewhat more up-beat tune, a song that explored her father’s love of the Beach Boys, including some of their best beach music in Carrie’s inimitable rendition. Carrie told me that at the last minute, she didn’t feel that the song “fit” on the album, and her producer, the expert Neilson Hubbard (Garrison Star, Glen Phillips), whom she credits with “bringing the songs to life,” agreed.
Her father’s passion for the Beach Boys was perhaps only succeeded by his love of family and his collection of pennies. Mr. Elkin amassed every penny he could get a hold of and painstakingly stored them in the once-familiar red rolls we seldom see anymore.
I don’t think I’m being disrespectful in thinking of the term eccentric having at least some appropriateness in her dad’s almost side-vocation that led to a room full of some 600,000 small brown coins and their red wrappers. However, for Carrie, she refers to her dad’s process solely as a unique ability to find wonder in things that others totally ignore. And, she and Danny took on the daunting task of preparing the pennies appropriately for deposit.
The album, with its namesake title, carries the energy and depth of her response to all of this.
And, soon to occur was yet another life-altering experience for the gifted singer-songwriter, this one in the other end of the life spectrum. This was the birth of the couple’s first child, who almost manages to give new meaning to the familiar phrase “blessed event.” The couple had put off having children until they felt better able to support them, but then it appeared they wouldn’t be able to give birth. Yet, shortly after her father’s passing, came the birth of the splendidly charming Maizy Rae Schmidt, as adorable a bundle as one could find in a pair of onesies.
You will get a taste of all of this within “Tilt-a-Whirl,” a song of memory and response in the new album. The song, like most of the others on it, attempts to give meaning to and express the resonance of a life lived to such extremes by the songwriter at the period of the genesis of these songs.
I remember the rodeo/I remember the tilt-a-whirl
I remember the Carnie girl/And I remember her dare
She said step up and get it/Five chances to win it
I threw the balls in the bucket/And I turned away
So full of fear now/Come to me dear now
Cover up your ears now/And I’ll play you a song
The song remembers growing up with family and friends within the happy, yet somewhat bittersweet past, recalling the carnival’s Tilt-a-Whirl and other emotionally-charged experiences. The melody of the song surrounds and embraces the meaning in it, bringing the feeling home for herself and enchanted listeners.
We were young then/We were brave then/There were no rings then
There were just songs/And though we cried some/We would still fly some
We would still fall some/But we weren’t afraid
The album is not all about Carrie. Other songs explore the lives, trials, and victories of others within her emotional and creative range. In “Always on the Run,” she sings of Native American struggles, ever more appropriate in these days of Standing Rock.
What is he afraid of? said the moon to the sun
For we both rise and fall/It’s a breath each day, and it’s his for the taking
So here’s a red ribbon lest he forget/That home is a’ waiting, the porch light is on
His wife is in bed and it’s late/And he’ll lay beside her, but he won’t touch her
He thinks she’s sleeping/But she lies there awake/Thinking home is where the heart is
But he’s aways on the run
She takes on the challenges of both death and life, while blaming it all on God, in the song “Albatross.”
Oh cicada gonna make make me scream
It’s like a hurricane pissing on a summer’s breeze
Been raining so hard I can barely breathe/Blame it god/and the stormy sea
Albatross gonna make me sing/With my mother’s voice and my father’s wings
I’ll carry the burden of a thousand things/Blame it god/and the unforeseen
Oh dear devil gonna make me lie/In a field of grass with a fire so high
Where you can’t forgive what you can’t survive/Blame it on god
In this brilliant passage, she could be singing to her new child, or it could be her father to her:
And oh my child/come and rest your weary head
You must know the time will come/When it all comes round again
It’s hard to tell/When it’s all just been too much
We’re resilient though i guess/Time will do the rest/Sleep oh sleep gonna make me dream
When you catch a little something in the in-between
Where the moon and the sun dance endlessly/Blame it on god/and the days first ring
Albatross gonna make me sing/With my mother’s voice and my father’s wings/
I’ll carry the burden of a thousand things/Blame it on god
The rich irony of blaming good on God.
As with much in life, Carrie and her husband, Danny Schmidt, who hail from Austin, share some vocals. And, I’m sure that Maizy and Richard spread their shine across the record.
So, The Penny Collector takes on a daunting challenge, to musically converge and project aspects of its creator’s life, with its momentous change of loss and gain. This, along with the triumphs and tragedies of those in the larger world around her, primarily in her immediate world in the contemporary Southwest. It does so by creating a world of music that will carry you singing into the new day.
The album ends appropriately with “Lamp of the Body,” with lyrics inspired by the Book of Matthew and a melody that reminds me at least of “I saw the light,” as in “no more darkness, no more night.”
The eye is the Lamp of the Body/When your eyes healthy/Your whole body
Will be full of light/Will be full of light
When the thread touched the needle’s head/I knew I’d have clothes to wear
I saw the light touch the light/It touched the light
And to all of that, Carrie, I, writing this humbling review, say, “Yea!”