Nels Andrews Artist of the Month April 2020

Sometimes I wonder if there is any subtlety left in the world. I’ve read a few reviews of Pigeon and the Crow, the fourth recording from Nels Andrews, that bemoan its minimalist approach. One even complained that it is a “dirge.” My response to that is that if you don’t like or understand folk music, you should be honest enough to admit it.

Pigeon and the Crow is indeed quiet and moody–you know, unlike all those other chirpy upbeat folk songs. Both of them. Folk songs are mostly about stories and melodies, not clichés or dance-your-ass-off rhythms. So, let’s start off with the title track. It is Andrews’ reimagining of a true story, that of Gabi Mann, a young girl from Seattle who began to feed her backyard crows when she was four. In turn, the crows left her presents. Before long, Gabi had quite a collection of things the crows left her–everything from shiny stones to rusty screws. You don’t need to tell her that corvids are intelligent. Andrews’ take is wrapped in a gorgeous melody that sounds vaguely Celtic. He’s actually American-bred and now lives in Santa Cruz, but he’s traveled a lot and has admirers in the UK. The Celtic flavor of this track has much to do with the fact that the album was produced by Ireland’s Nuala Kennedy and that’s her flute you hear wafting through the mix. Andrews’s lyrics and enigmatic and mysterious, an appropriate touch for human/wildlife encounters in which much is communicated but much more remains cloaked. Pete Harvey’s cello burnishes the deeper mysteries.

“Memory Compass” also has a Celtic flair to it. It’s doleful and introspective–my memory compass is always headed south/Bay leaf and cinnamon in the back of my mouth–and evocative of the kind of songs Richard Shindell writes. “Table in the Kitchen” has more drive to it, but is also self-reflective. It’s about looking inside while looking at others in a restaurant: Watching the people watching each other/Thinking I want what he has got. “Welterweight” is a live track that shows you don’t need much if you have a soothing voice, a lovely tune, and something to say. In this case Andrews muses on fading lives within a scrambled counting song: It’s ten, eight, nine/You should have seen me in prime…. “Embassy to the Airport” is also live and sends off some of the same vibes, while “Scrimshaw” explores how to stay constant in a long-term relationship. That’s Anais Mitchell singing with him.

One of the many things I admire about this recording is that it’s a mix of sparse and textured songs. You will fiddle, electric guitar, squeeze boxes, mandolin, steel drums, and more in the instrumental mix. Supporting vocalists include not just Mitchell and Kennedy, but also A. J. Roach and Anthony Da Costa. Fiona Apple is a Nels Andrews fan and has sung on other albums. I’ve heard rumors that she’s on this one as well, though she’s not listed in the credits.

Ignore the cynics; Nels Andrews fits snugly amongst the finest in the folk tradition.

Rob Weir

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