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ellen cherry
Wrong Size Shoes

The vast majority of contemporary singer-songwriters have one thing in common: they write about their own lives. Topical and historical songs have never truly been in vogue since the dissolution of the folk movement of the 1960s. If you take a trip to a local coffeehouse, though, you might encounter a performer like Ellen Cherry. With her EP Years, Cherry seems determined to preserve the spirit of folksingers like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Phil Ochs. Each track is written from the point of view of a woman in a specific period of history, but these are not larger-than-life historical figures. They are everyday people, and with her skillful poetry and dexterous songwriting Cherry manages to capture both the individuals and the spirit of their times. Years is a modest record, but its sincerity and craftsmanship make it feel much bigger than it actually is.

Cherry is not a powerful or versatile singer, but she is uncommonly sincere, and her unadorned vocals give the songs on Years the universality they require. She self-recorded the album in her own Wrong Size Shoes Studios, and wisely avoids modern production. The album is intimate, loose, and sounds neither modern nor outdated. The production also directs the focus to Cherry's outstanding lyrics. The songs focus on events like the Civil War and the sinking of the Titanic, and are rich with poetry. In "1893: A Girl At The World's Fair," Cherry gives voice to a woman who disappeared at the Chicago Columbian Exposition held that year: "This was the story of my liberty / a cog in the grinding gears of the city / a line in a novel a hundred years from now / that's what's left of me."

The album's first five songs are stunning, highlighted by the sorrowful "1912: Violet Swims, But The Ship Sinks," an exquisite sketch based on the true story of Violet Jessup, a woman who survived the sinking of the Titanic. The song opens with an a cappella passage and adds subdued piano, before a mournful chorus of background singers laments the doomed ship's fate. Cherry's only misstep is a bonus track she tacked on to the record, the country-influenced "1976: Buffalo Gals Don't Worry About Fashion." The song is a decent genre exercise, but it is an underwhelming conclusion to an otherwise impressive album.

By writing through the eyes of women in history, Cherry has created a thought-provoking work that makes a grand statement without raising its voice. It is an intelligent, modest record that offers a refreshing contrast to the self-involved singer-songwriters that flood the airwaves. Cherry varies the style and mood of her songs enough to make each stand out as a distinct piece of work. It is both fluid and varied, and it does exactly what music should do: make us feel joy, make us feel pain, make us think, and make our lives a little bit more rewarding.

-Dan Warren

Track Listing:
1. 1864: A Civil War Bride
2. 1893: A Girl At The World's Fair
3. 1912: Violet Swims, But The Ship Sinks
4. 1933: To California
5. 1950: Inside The Music Box
6. 1976: Buffalo Gals Don't Worry About Fashion

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