Disclaimer: I'm not a music critic, although I know what I like when I hear it, which makes me critic enough. The songwriting process is a mystery to me. How can I truly interpret the inspiration that leaps through the neurons and synapses of artists as they create their own vision of truth? Having said that, I am an unapologetic fan of Underhill Rose. They are friends who have something to say, and I sit back and listen.
Artistic evolution is never a sure thing, and I suspect that little notion of development anxiety certainly holds true for many musicians, too.
For one reason or another, some artists might become boxed within a certain sound or formula — something that gave them their initial audience to begin with — and perhaps they never find their way out to newer ground.
Underhill Rose, the female Americana trio from Asheville composed of guitarist Molly Rose Reed, banjo picker Eleanor Underhill and upright bassist Salley Williamson, is about to officially release its highly anticipated third CD, "The Great Tomorrow" on June 30.
An advanced listening to the 11-track CD, independently released and financed by their fan base through Kickstarter, tells you that the women have taken a confident step forward in their collective careers. They know it, too.
"We wanted to showcase our growth as writers and singers, and this album demonstrates how we've matured," Molly Rose said in a recent online press release that serves as liner notes. "This is truly our best work yet."
Indeed, the CD explores a recurring theme of relationships, loves lost and found, of personal strength and persistence.
"We wanted 'The Great Tomorrow' to have a bigger arc and overall theme than the last album ('Something Real')," said Eleanor. "We wanted there to be a definite beginning, middle and end."
Underhill Rose fans will delight in knowing that the group's signature harmonies and tight musicianship are interwoven all through this album. What really comes forward here is the songwriting. There's the true evolution.
The journey begins with Salley's "Our Time is Done," a tune of caring gratitude with Molly singing the lead. The song's chorus has a Celtic feel to it reminiscent of The Rankins, a family of songbirds based out of Cape Breton Island, and maybe that's why this number, for me, has such a beautifully lyrical quality about it.
Molly's "When I Die," curiously titled for such a vibrant woman in her 30s, is actually life affirming when you pay attention to the words. Paced by a shoulder-pumping beat, we hear Molly singing:
"I'm going to sit with my best friend
over a cup of tea
and share wine with my lover
while we drink each other deeply."
Perhaps the most intriguing tune on the CD is Eleanor's "Whispering Pines Motel," inspired by an actual motor lodge located in West Asheville. The song is southernly sultry and moody enough to be edgy while at the same time perspiring with passion and urgent rendezvous. Clearly, our reluctant Sugar Mama from the past is now a distant memory.
"Montana" is Molly's catchy ode to wanderlust and a not-quite forgotten love. She follows that up with "My Friend," a slow-tempo heartacher about a relationship that did dissolve, but not without a little pain, and why didn't it work out anyway, weren't we friends? Molly's remarkable voice leads you by the hand through this emotional minefield, and that helps. A lot.
Just when you think your throat can't clench any tighter, Eleanor soothingly reappears with "Love Looks Good on You," a rhythmic appreciation of an imperfect lover. That tune might be spiritually connected to the ensuing "Rest Easy," where you can find solace in that imperfection. Eleanor knows:
"Content with conversation
Fiftyone playing cards
Well I've weighed all the things that we have
And all the things that we aren't
And it looks alright"
Molly returns, her voice nearly camouflaged by a bluesy bullet mic to sing Salley's "Shine," a kind of paean to moon shining. It's about a family doing what it takes to survive the hard times, but you can almost see Salley snickering as she jots down the lyrics as they come to her.
Paul Abdul's "Straight Up," written by Elliot Wolff, is the first CD cover track ever done by Underhill Rose. The song gets the full UR treatment and it certainly fits the album's theme, but I have to wonder if there wasn't another original tune somewhere in the Underhill Rose vault that the group could have used. The trio simply has too much talent to give a pass on its own work.
Eleanor cleans up with "Not Gonna Worry" and "The Great Tomorrow," both expressions of optimism. "Not Gonna Worry," with its wonderful three-part harmonies and Eleanor's versatile up-front banjo, might be the connective tissue (perhaps along with "Montana" and "Love Looks Good on You") to the band's previous albums as this CD boldly moves them forward.
The album is slickly produced by Cruz Contreras of the Black Lillies (who also produced "Something Real") and features Nicky Sanders (violin) and Mike Ashworth (drums) of the Steep Canyon Rangers, Mike Seal (electric guitar) of the Jeff Sipe Trio and Matt Smith (pedal steel) of the Honeycutters/Amy Ray as accompanying artists. It all comes together very seamlessly and the album should be poised to make a serious move on the Americana Music Association Top 40 chart, where "Something Real" spent 10 weeks several years ago.
I have a friend who lives in Nashville, and she thought "The Great Tomorrow" is "light years" beyond "Something Real." She might be right.
But here's a thinly-veiled secret: as good as this album sounds — as good as it feels — there's nothing better than the three-piece string band of Underhill Rose performing live on stage. You want an artist's vision of the unvarnished truth? Buy their CD, but see them in concert.