Boxharp: The Green
Hidden Shoal

Boxharp brings together the considerable talents of singer Wendy Allen and renowned producer Scott Solter. Given his pedigree (Solter's worked with Pattern is Movement, Lazarus, The Caribbean, and numerous others), one expects that The Green will impress on production and arranging grounds and on those counts it doesn't disappoint. What's more surprising is that while The Green includes a few pop-oriented tracks, much of it resembles a modernized version of Steeleye Span or Fairport Convention. Prior to recording the album, Allen and Solter, both of them members of The Balustrade Ensemble, retired to the solitude and rural atmosphere of the American South in 2006, a move that, by Allen's own admission, seeped into the music's occasionally angst-ridden lyrical content.

“Paper Boats,” a wonderland overture of shimmering sythetics and wordless vocals, succeeds in transporting the listener into Boxharp's verdant space. Buoyed by a downtempo funk groove and glistening keyboard melodies, the album's first song proper, the swaying title track, exudes a splendour that somehow manages to feel both earthly and celestial. Slotted immediately after a track that so nicely showcases Allen's radiant and crystal clear voice, the ambient instrumental “Wooden Music” can't help but feel like it's lacking something. Four tracks into the album, The Green makes its first foray into traditional folk-song territory with “Hick's Farewell,” an eerie chant-styled lamentation updated with modern sounds and production treatments that's followed four songs later by the similarly styled ballad “Leatherwing Bat” and haunting chant “The Scarecrow's Lament.”

The album includes moments of startling beauty. The purity of Allen's singing in the delicate ballad “Cloy” calls to mind Susanna Karolina Wallumrød (Susanna and the Magical Orchestra), while her multi-tracked voice suggests kinship with Jane Siberry when the stately dreamscape “The Moon's the North Wind's Cookie” glistens like some mystical paradise of synthetic shimmer. Elsewhere, listeners of a certain age might hear echoes of Natalie Merchant (the prosaic and earthbound pop song “Sidestepping”) and even Renaissance chanteuse Annie Haslam in Allen's delivery. Tracks as powerful as “Cloy” and “The Moon's the North Wind's Cookie” also, however, make the pop-styled effort “Konnarock, VA” and the instrumental mood-piece “Rootfire” seem slight by comparison.

Overall, the album's a convincing fusion of the ancient and the modern and, on genre grounds, a wide-ranging collection that effectively spotlights her supple vocalizing and his production smarts. If there's a downside, it's that the shift between conventional pop and traditional folk-balladry can feel like too dramatic a stylistic leap, resulting in a lessening in clarity of band identity. Though there's nothing quite as memorable as Sandy Denny singing “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” there are still more than enough strong moments to recommend the release.

July 2010