Rachel Baiman – Shame
Freedirt – 14 July 2017
“Many times I’ve passed a church, and wished that I believed.” So begins the title track opener of the sophomore album by Rachel Baiman, a Chicago-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter and activist (co- founder of Folk Fights Back, which stages concerts and events to raise awareness for social and political justice) raised by social-worker and radical-economist parents whose Sunday mornings were spent at the non-religious community of the Ethical Humanist Society of Greater Chicago.
As you might imagine, all that left something of an impression and she describes the new album as about growing up female in America, Shame itself rooted in ‘abortion politics’, bouncing bluegrassily along on a jaunty banjo line, musically nodding to John Hartford as she sings of “ old white men” who “in the name of sweet religion they would lay their claims on me and ask me to be grateful for triumphant jubilee” while the narrator declares how she’ll find her own way to “triumphant jubilee.”
She’s in similarly defiant mode on the album closer, the lazy Southern gospel sway Let Them Go To Heaven, addressing the morally self-righteous as she sings “spare me the saving from my unholy life”, borrowing lines from Ishmael Reed’s poem When I Die I Will Go To Jazz. Backed by soulful piano she questions “what use are angels singing sweet soft hymns? When I’ve got rock to roll away my sins.”
In-between she can be playful, as on the jaunty Getting Ready to Start (Getting Ready) with its rolling guitar line or the wistful, relationships musing Thinkin’ On You (“is it better to have and to lose or never to know”) featuring Mandolin Orange’s Andrew Marlin (who also produced the album), and the fiddle waltzing mountain music styled break-up number In the Space of a Day.
Unfulfilled fantasies fuel the bluesier I Could’ve Been Your Lover Too (“I’m chewin’ my lips and counting my steps imagining your weight upon my breast”) whereas, in contrast, the shimmering acoustic-strummed Wicked Spell tells of the haunting of an old lover with its memorable line “you are just a rattle in my attic from an old rocking chair.” Then, turning sentiments around, the gentle Something to Lose, featuring Josh Oliver on harmonies, finds her in a good loving place while, opening with some rousing fiddle, Never Tire of the Road is a steady paced back porch stomp (imagine a slow motion hoe down) about the life of a travelling musician.
One of the most striking lyrics comes with the remaining track, Take A Stand, a brooding pizzicato banjo underpinning a song that, featuring a throaty electric guitar solo from Oliver, is essentially about being careful what you wish for and not being in a rush to grow up before you know what the world’s about. Sung in the persona of a girl that married an older man in her eagerness to find love, the line about “a grown man lying in a child’s bed” is particularly hard-hitting. Whether personal or political, Shame is an embarrassment of riches.