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The album is intimate, loose, and sounds neither modern nor outdated.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.
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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