Don’t Weigh Down the Light is Meg Baird’s fourth solo album, her first since 2011’s Seasons on Earth and, while her distinctive guitar playing and unique voice are still present and correct, the record marks a significant stylistic change. It’s a very impressionistic affair in which individual songs are perhaps more important for their contribution to the overall effect. Song structures are obscured behind lengthy instrumental sections but, despite the low key sound of the record it’s artistically uncompromising insofar as it ignores the record industry’s received wisdom that albums should contain easily identifiable singles and follow well-trodden paths in terms of content and structure. That said, influences do peek through here and there, serving the dual purpose of allowing the listener to orientate herself while providing a useful benchmark from which to judge just how far from the mainstream this record really is.
Opening track ‘Counterfeiters’ illustrates this point well. Built around a strummed guitar with chord changes that are reminiscent of Elton John’s cover of Lesley Duncan’s ‘Love Song’ (from 1970’s Tumbleweed Connection album), the distant sweeps of muted slide guitar over minimal percussion transform it into an entirely different place; otherworldly and distant and about as far from the glossy Americana vibe as it’s possible to get.
The lengthy ‘I Don’t Mind’ eases in with a steady rhythmic fingerstyle acoustic guitar over which Meg’s gentle voice floats like clouds at sunset. There are some interesting key changes in both the chords and the melody, modulations against which the lead slide guitar weaves and flows throughout. The song’s end section catches the ear with layers of multitracked vocal harmonies over Meg’s trademark sparse acoustic guitar playing and help to make it one of the album’s highlights.
Instrumentally, ‘Mosquito Hawks’ pits treated electric guitar chords against the ubiquitous fingerstyle acoustic guitar. Again there are some nice chord changes going on, particularly in the middle section, but it’s Meg’s voice that stands out on this composition: high, clear and a little husky, the listener can see where the numerous comparisons to Joni Mitchell come from – although whether those comparisons are fair to either musician is another matter. The album cover looking vaguely reminiscent of Blue probably adds fuel to that particular fire but, as with ‘Counterfeiters’, the two musicians are as different as chalk and cheese.
‘Back to You’ opens with a lengthy instrumental section with Meg’s fingerstyle acoustic guitar appearing to show a hint of a Spanish flamenco influence, although any chance of further exploration of that particular style is effectively negated by the long and abstract electric lead guitar which is present throughout. If I have any specific criticism of the album it’s that, occasionally, an apparent lack of musical arrangement risks creating the impression of self-indulgence. While this is, of course, the musicians’ prerogative – and rightly so – the flipside is that it may be hard for some listeners to keep their attention on the music.
As if to prove me wrong, right on cue ‘Past Houses’ foregrounds some lovely piano in addition to the now familiar fingerstyle acoustic guitar and treated slide guitar combination. Some equally lovely vocal harmonies supplement the main melody before the piano takes centre stage again for the end section; all in all it’s a combination which works extremely well and marks the piece out as another highlight.
It’s followed by ‘Leaving Song’, a short piece comprised entirely of multitracked wordless vocals before ‘Stars Unwinding’ returns to the blueprint of a lengthy instrumental introduction of treated electric guitar soloing over Meg’s fingerstyle acoustic guitar. There’s an interesting tension between the rhythmic intensity of her playing and an almost deliberate hesitancy in her singing.
‘Good Directions’ is a more uptempo piece, its simple percussion track providing a springboard for strummed acoustic and electric guitars. At times it’s reminiscent of 1960s West Coast USA jangle pop (The Byrds come to mind) complete with an air of faux Eastern mysticism rounded off with a nod to Joni’s Ladies of the Canyon in the wispy, whispery vocals before climaxing in an unexpectedly loud and crashy ending.
The title track ‘Don’t Weigh Down the Light’ returns to the format of the earlier pieces with a long, heavily reverbed, solo fingerstyle guitar introduction before Meg’s high, almost murmured vocals appear although her use of a lower register on the refrains is effective and the high/low split with the harmonies is something which may bear further investigation in future recordings.
The guitar in the penultimate ‘Even the Walls Don’t Want You to Go’ channels The Doors’ ‘The End’ in feel although the multitracked vocals and some of the chord changes are more reminiscent of mid-1980s Cocteau Twins in their shimmer and sparkle. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of sounds which works surprisingly well and points to a musical direction which could, I feel, benefit from further exploration.
The closing ‘Past Houses (Reprise)’ takes the basic chord sequence of the original, slowing it right down and giving the electric lead guitar free rein in an almost Eno-esque ambient instrumental which winds the album down gently.
Don’t Weigh Down the Light is an intriguing if uncompromising listen; no doubt it will appeal to Meg Baird’s hardcore fan base although how many new listeners it will attract remains to be seen. Nevertheless, any musician who is able and willing to follow her own star so doggedly and tirelessly is always worth checking out, particularly when she so steadfastly refuses to play to the mainstream music industry’s narrow and binding rules. More power to her elbow!
Review by: Helen Gregory
Don’t Weigh Down the Light is Out Now
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