Caroline Herring’s “Golden Apples of the Sun.”
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There’s a purity, a clarity, and a subtly engaging ambition in Caroline Herring’s fourth disc, “Golden Apples of the Sun,” one of the year’s best singer/songwriter releases.
Your first hear it in her voice, an instrument that brings to mind Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Judy Collins in its honest beauty. You hear it, too, in her inner voice, which like Baez, Mitchell, and Collins isn’t content to just sing pretty songs. Herring’s tunes, the half dozen she wrote, as well as the covers, are quietly compelling tales. And like so many brilliant works of art, “Golden Apples” reveals its varied pleasures over time and repeated listening, anchored by Herring’s voice.
Herring is a Mississippi native who came out of the Austin, Texas, songwriter scene a decade ago with her debut, “Twilight.” For her latest, she migrated north to the Signature Sounds Studio in Connecticut (the home base for a label that has nurtured one songwriter after another over the past decade) to record this intimate disc with only spare accompaniment by producer David Goodrich. It’s a smart choice, stripping away anything resembling artifice to focus on Herring’s singing and her message.
She deftly mixes originals, smart takes on covers made popular by Mitchell (“Cactus Tree”) and Cyndi Lauper (a radically altered and beautifully rendered “True Colors”), and collaborations with great dead poets, including Yeats (“Song of the Wandering Aengus) and Dante (“The Great Unknown.”). The closer, “The Wild Rose,” is a modern hymn that borrows from farmer/essayist Wendell Berry and the poet Pablo Neruda. And while the sound is stripped down, it’s also varied enough with haunting, melodically altered versions of traditional folk offerings, “Long Dark Veil” and “See See Rider,” a nod to John Hurt and her Mississippi roots.
She mines those roots on the opener, “Tales of the Islander,” about Walter Anderson, a Mississippi naturalist and painter she’s admired for years. The song imagines joining the late Anderson on his rowboat trips to the islands around Mississippi.
Give me a sunset
Of lilac, gold and green gray skies
I’ll give you spirals and zig zag lines
It’s the magic hour of a halcyon day
And all of mankind stands there
On “The Great Unknown,” inspired by The Divine Comedy, she sounds like early 1970s Joni Mitchell, poetic and mesmerizing. Like Mitchell, she sets Yeats’ poem to music, but changes it from the melody Collins used.
The words and the social conscience unpeel in layers with repeated listenings, but the constant is Herring’s voice, mesmerizing, dark, colored and with just the right part of vibrato that Baez uses so perfectly. Listen to the opening few lines of “The Dozens,” told as a conversation with a white-haired veteran of the Civil Rights movement and let the chills run up and down. “I’m just a white girl from a segregated town and I’m looking for some answers that I haven’t found,” she sings.
Her willingness to question, to explore, and to keep trying new things (several songs were recorded different ways) takes Herring into fertile new ground and makes for an engaging, comforting, and ultimately quietly compelling listen.