I'll admit it — the first time I hit play on Rachel Garlin's most recent album, Bound To Be Mountains, I groaned a little at the thought of listening to (and reviewing) yet another girl-with-guitar album. And then I surprised myself by playing the album through a second time, followed by a third time.
Garlin has a young-sounding voice, and her slightly twangy vocals range from softly poignant to raucously brazen. She tells stories with her music, like any good singer/songwriter, ranging from autobiographical to fictional, and taking small phrases to paint lush pictures with them. The title track begins with the lines, "A slice of cake, a ring around a finger…" and already the listener has an image of a traditional Western wedding reception. The song goes on to say that while there may be some mountains to cross over or boulders in the road to get around, they don't matter because she doesn't "love you only when love is surrounding us" — a rather poignant lyric about long-term commitments and unconditional love in the face of adversity.
Two of my favorite tracks appear to be autobiographical but feel more like creative non-fiction. "Broke Down House" is a toe-tapper about how a house isn't a home, and no matter what condition the building may be in, it's what's inside that matters. "Wartime Gig" is also a toe-tapper, and possibly even a sing-along with its repeated phrases. The song is from the perspective of a young Jewish kid from a single-mother family who was sent to a small town in the country during World War II and his/her adjustments to the new life. It's partially humorous and partially revealing of the narrow perspectives and social differences between city dwellers and country folk.
Engineer Ben Wisch and production master Fred Kevorkian deserve recognition for the album's recording quality. It's too easy to record an acoustic guitar that sounds too "chinky" or metallic and missing the resonant warmth of the instrument. Find some live recordings of these songs on YouTube and compare them with the album versions, and you'll hear the difference in recording quality.
Musically, Bound To Be Mountains is pretty much your typical acoustic guitar-and-vocalist contemporary folk album, but these are songs where attention and craft has been put into the lyrics, and it would be a mistake to overlook them. Garlin's storytelling reminds me of Carrie Newcomer or Suzanne Vega, and if this album is any indication, she has the potential to be as successful a songwriter as they are.