Five-year song journey
As published in the Berkshire Eagle, June 26, 2011
CD Review: Bright Examples. Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion. Route 8 Records, http://www.sarahleeandjohnny.com
With soaring harmonies and jingle-jangle guitar riffs, the tracks on “Bright Examples,” the new album by Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, steer away from the duo’s traditional country-rock sound and take on a late-1960s folk-rock vibe with hints of blues and pop throughout.
It’s not wonder the record also has a slight psychedelic feel. Its co-producer is Andy Cabic, known for his work with the psych-rock band Vetiver (Vetiver also provide instrumental accompaniment on the album).
The album takes the listener on a journey through the past five years of Guthrie and Irion’s life — their last album, “Exploration,” was released in 2005 — with original compositions ranging from relaxed ballads to upbeat pop numbers, each showcasing different sides of the duo.
The opening track, “Ahead of Myself,” sounds like it could have come right off of Alison Krauss and Robert Plante’s 2007 album, “Raising Sand.” A sultry blues number in which Irion croons about falling in love, it has an easygoing pace and airy texture. Similarly, “Seven Sisters” features a gospel-inspired pian intro and dynamic, tension-building shifts from the band. Guthrie delivers a lead vocal in raspy voice worthy of a night club songstress, with just a hint of her father Arlo’s high, nasaly-sweet tone.
Meanwhile, “Speed of Light,” the third track, starts out like an addictive pop tune circa the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper,” complete with cryptic-yet-fun lyrics. This happy-go-lucky tune with ringing guitars and touches of soul turns up the beat considerably from the previous tracks. And despite its somewhat dark lyrics, “Target on Your Heart” is a stand-out track with sweet melody and harmonies reminiscent of the Mamas and the Papas.
Storytelling must run in the Guthrie family, because it is certainly prominent in Sarah’s lyrics. Yet unlike her grandfather Woody’s political storytelling (think “This Land is Your Land”) and her father’s comical storytelling (think “Alice’s Restaurant”), Sarah has an emotional story to tell, one that reminds the listener that the only thing worth counting on is love.
“Never Far From My Heart” is a radiant duet that shows off the pair’s appreciation of early pop. Lyrics like “All our crazy mistakes/ yes we’ve had our share/ but I dropped them off at baggage claim/ they’re going ’round on a carousel” along with immaculate harmonies and a little touch of country twang make for a fun and cheery tune.
In “Company I’m Keepin’,” Guthrie delivers powerful vocals on a ballad written by her husband. The romantic lyrics tell the story of the couple’s reliance on each other: “If the bottom were to fall out/ I’d have no place to go/ I’ll be standin’ with my arms out reachin’/ All I’m tryin’ to tell you is I’m happy with the company I’m keepin’.” It’s clear in songs like these that Guthrie and Irion’s music is deeply intertwined with their personal lives.
The album isn’t all love notes and pop numbers, however. Other standout tracks include “Dupont Circle,” which sounds like it came right out of New Orleans with its shuffling, funky rhythm, and “Cry Quieter,” a subtly political song about the human spirit prevailing during tragedy.
“Butterflies,” a dreamy ballad with a brilliant arrangement featuring an accordion, highlights Guthrie’s sweet and innocent-sounding tone. And there is, of course, the title track. “Bright Examples” ends the album on a bluesy note, complete with harmonica, organ, and soulful backup vocals. It’s a narrative song, telling the tale of two hikers meeting by chance on the Appalachian Trail and their experiences together. It’s the perfect, atmospheric ending to a colorful album.
It seems that their recent move back to the Berkshires where Sarah lee Guthrie grew up has had a major impact on this duo’s overall sound and lyrical sentiments — in a good way. With its laid-back, feel-good vibes and sunny sentiments, “Bright Examples” makes the perfect soundtrack for a Berkshire summer.