Angel Dean & Sue Garner – Reunited Rounduppers
It took more than twenty years for Angel Dean and Sue Garner to get around to Pot Liquor. The two women, both southerners by birth (Dean grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Garner in Cave Spring, Georgia) first met in New York City in the early 1980s. So in some ways, the album’s rich and somewhat mysterious collection of songs about forest cemeteries, dark quarry ponds and learning to appreciate mundane comforts represents a midlife reunion.
Both had moved north with typical post-collegiate aspirations. Dean, a theater major, found more immediate gratification playing music at parties and art openings than waiting for Broadway callbacks. “I was at that point just playing ukulele solos, singing ‘Hang down your head, Tom Dooley’ or ‘Petticoat Junction’, stuff like that, at the Mudd Club,” Dean says.
Garner knew some New York musicians through assorted connections — she had played in a band while attending the Atlanta College of Art — and soon joined a New York roots-country outfit called Last Roundup. Dean came aboard not long after. The band, which also included Amy Rigby, spent a while on Rounder Records and built up a sizable local following before dissolving.
Garner, who had departed shortly after Dean joined, went on to a number of musically disparate projects, many with her husband, drummer Rick Bass. Their avant-everything trio Fish & Roses was a staple of the NYC downtown scene for several years. Dean was a member of the Zephyrs and Shackwacky before leaving New York fourteen years ago for her husband Jonathan Thomas’ home state of Rhode Island.
The two women stayed in loose touch. When Garner played in Providence, she would stay with Dean and Thomas, although they were as likely to talk about Dean’s burgeoning garden as about music. Dean, who works at the Providence Art Club, found the local music scene somewhat disappointing. “I thought I could keep up my music life here,” she says, “but they were really more focused on Irish or traditional folk music.”
For fun, Dean and Thomas (a Lovecraftian horror writer who has published short stories and has a novel on the way) started writing songs together. During one of Garner’s visits, Dean brought them out. “I was up there doing a show by myself,” Garner recalls. “Angel said, ‘I’ve got all these songs and I’m dying to play them, and I want someone to play them with.'”
She was impressed by what she heard. She and Dean started working out harmonies and arrangements. Family and professional obligations delayed the collaboration for a few years, but they eventually found an enthusiastic supporter in old friend Jeremy Tepper, head of New York’s Diesel Only label. For years best-known for its truck-driving-song compilations, Diesel Only lately has emerged as a significant alt-country indie, home to Laura Cantrell, Amy Allison, Will Rigby and others.
The album, produced by J.D. Foster (whose credits include records for Richard Buckner and Richmond Fontaine), sports a long roster of guest players, including Bass and assorted former bandmates. The overall effect is stripped down, sometimes spooky, and always warm, thanks to Dean and Garner’s remarkable vocal compatibility. “I love that sound, those mountain harmonies,” Garner says. “It gets me every time.”
The lyrics, many of them by Thomas, play with the gothic side of country-folk convention, invoking dread and darkness without overdoing it. But there’s another side to the record, a contemplative resiliency that sounds natural coming from two singers in their mid-40s. It shows up most clearly in “Dreams”, which limns various fantasies — “In my dream we won a kissing contest, we lived like kings and queens/We won a Nobel Prize and then we turned the desert green” — before settling for plain old daily life: “Life awake with you is so much better, beyond words.”
“In a way I feel like I’ve kind of grown up and become a whole person,” Dean says. “I know how to garden, I have a house.”
For her part, Garner says the album’s folky arrangements don’t represent too uncomfortable a shift from her more experimental music of recent years. “I was a little concerned about that,” she acknowledges. “But I felt like in the recording process, Angel was very open and allowed some of my interests to come through.”
Indeed, Pot Liquor hardly seems hidebound by tradition. There’s a bright edge to the production that recalls, say, Kristin Hersh as much as Dolly Parton.
Dean and Garner plan to tour through the summer, and also to head back to the studio. The old friends’ second album is unlikely to take another twenty years. “We’ve been writing songs together,” Garner says. “I’m really excited about the next record.”