If “Appalachia” brings to mind traditional coal-country music, or front-porch folk music descended from the British Isles, clear your mind. The new album Modern Appalachia from Sarah Siskind is heavy on atmospherics and electric guitar, and very far from rootsy country music.
Squalling guitar plunges carry the epic opening track “Me and Now” into territory far beyond either traditional country music or commonplace Nashville pop-rock-country. The song explores the challenges of living in the moment, casting one eye on the beating heart and the other on what feels like a thundering sky. The title track, which follows, describes an artist’s awakening through the music of her predecessors. But it does so in an edgy language of its own, with fine acoustic bass work from Daniel Kimbro.
The churning syncopation of the catchy “Carolina” bears a distinct relation to 1990s lo-fi underground rock, with the electric guitar wailing as eloquently as Siskind sings. Yet it also seems inspired by the likes of Dolly Parton (whom Siskind calls out in the title track) and classic Patty Loveless.
“In the Mountains,” in turn, feels timeless, the kind of composition that could have come from any era or place. It takes up again the theme of “Me and Now”: being one with yourself, living in the present. It’s not hard to imagine Patsy Cline singing this, in half-broken tones.
“A Little Bit Troubled” has a twang, a dark bluesy melody, and a tense electric energy that calls to mind Alanna Myles’ “Black Velvet.” “Daddy’s on the run, Mama’s on the bottle, Baby’s gonna be OK, just a little bit troubled.” But it builds to a rocking rave-up that suggests Baby may not end up OK after all. Equally good is the incantatory “Maybe There’s Love Between Us,” which casts a fascinating three-chord spell under liquid vocals. Plainspoken lyrics and homespun melodies and harmonies create something bigger than the sum of their parts.
The folk-pop of “Danny” with its expertly layered guitars leads into the grave “Punk Rock Girl”: “I used to be a hardcore chick / A heart of steel and skin so thick…Why should I make this into art? / Why should I care about his heart?” Thwarted love returns in the steady-rolling “Porchlight,” which, like the title track, features Bill Frisell: “My heart is still alive for you.”
The channel changes with the elemental gospel intensity of “Rest in the River,” which I had to double-check was an original and not an old folk number. Siskind has had songs covered by major Nashville stars over the years, but in her own relatively unprepossessing voice her sensibility shines loud and clear. And she doesn’t hit you over the head with her religiosity, which I appreciate. This is a superbly written and arranged set of songs, at least some of which ought to reverberate with just about every listener.
Sarah Siskind’s Modern Appalachia will be released 17 April 2020.