Dori Freeman: Letters Never Read
Blue Hens Music / MRI – 27 October 2017
Dori Freeman’s back-story reads like a dream or a fairytale – you’ll have learnt via this site that just a very few years ago she was a single mother working in her family’s frame shop in her hometown of Galax, Virginia when she reached out to Teddy Thompson via Facebook and sent him a video of her singing a song along with a note saying how much she would like to sing with him. And incredibly, three days later he wrote back. Things moved fast, for within a very short couple of years she released an astonishingly assured debut album, with Teddy himself in the producer’s chair and singing close harmonies with Dori on three tracks. Dori’s own songs were impressive too, dealing unaffectedly and directly (and instinctively) with emotional matters, and showing a keen grasp of musical idioms and folk and country genre role-models (well, she did grow up exposed to the music of such artists as Doc Watson and The Louvin Brothers). Dori’s debut album was widely acclaimed, and she was quite extravagantly hailed as “the new voice of Appalachia”. Follow that! We all cried…
Fast forward barely a year, and here’s Dori proudly releasing the follow-up, Letters Never Read, which presents a further ten helpings of her stunning singing voice, this time showcased on six new originals and four covers. The overall tone of this latest, more relaxed collection, Dori cheerfully admits, is rosier than her debut (“I always want to put out something that’s a genuine representation of what I was going through at that point in my life”); apparently, getting married last year to fellow-musician Nick Falk (who plays drums and banjo on the album) made writing love songs much easier – and of course, she’s happier now in general. But I’d still say that melancholy is Dori’s strongest suit, for the album title alone is really thoughtful and poignant (she says that it comes from the idea of “writing songs about people in your past and maybe them never knowing that it’s about them…kind of like a letter never being read”). Yes, you can feel the ache in her voice as she puts this feeling across – but it’s a simple expression, and not in the least bit theatrical or mover-emoted. Lovers On The Run is another song that carries the theme of being left behind, again spending time writing letters never read. And Cold Waves, an album standout for sure, is written from within depression (and to my mind strongly recalls Roy Orbison along the way). The disc’s final pair of originals are (rather unfairly, I think) tucked away between the covers (so to speak), in the latter stages of the disc. Turtle Dove is set to a sensuously skewed tango rhythm that could’ve come from a Dionne Warwick track, whereas That’s Alright is a somehow more detached, perhaps even sanguine, exploration of betrayal. Even amongst the melancholy and rueful reflection, there’s the feeling that there’s light at the end of that particular tunnel.
I can’t help hearing the influence (musical as opposed to lyric-wise) of a certain Richard Thompson on the opening yearning country-waltzer Make You My Own – not least because the man himself plays signature electric guitar on this track! Other musicians involved in the backing for Dori’s gorgeous voice during the course of the album comprise the aforementioned Nick Falk, together with Teddy Thompson (who once again produced the album), Jon Graboff, Neal Casal, Dave Speranza, Roy Williams, Erik Deutsch, Jeff Hill, Alex Hargreaves and Duncan Wickel, while she also calls on Aoife O’Donovan and Canadian psych-folk duo Kacy & Clayton for harmony vocals. Although that seems like a large roster, the arrangements aren’t overblown at all, and often bring in some unexpected colours (vibraphone on Cold Waves and Turtle Dove for instance), to good effect.
Having discussed Dori’s new originals a bit, it’s time to turn attention to the covers. The first of these, Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog, penned by Dori’s own grandfather Willard Gayheart, is a delicious slice of slightly silly hometown nostalgia done in backporch a cappella style. This is followed by an equally delectable traditional number, the highly infectious Over There, backed only by Nick’s banjo in true Appalachian old-timey mode. Then comes Dori’s nicely seductive, quite individual take on I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (guess who?!). The final cover is a bit of a wildcard, Jim Reeves’ Yonder Comes A Sucker; its jubilant marching-drum tattoo backing sure gives it something of a celebratory feel, but maybe it’s an odd choice for closer, even in the literal context of “bidding my last farewell”.
Actually, the whole collection leaves an odd final impression, in that it might’ve been rushed out to satisfy demand for a quick follow-up to last year’s debut. While the original songs are still quality stuff, they feel a bit like a “moved-on” stage emotionally rather than any development in the artistic sense. The covers are good fun, but end up more as tasty desserts or chasers to the main menu. Nevertheless, Letters Never Read proves an ideal companion to Dori’s eponymous debut, and can comfortably be appended to that record to form a wholly logical, listenable single hour-long CD that’ll still leave you wanting more of Dori’s wonderful voice and keenly-observed songwriting.