Thursday, October 26, 2017

album review: 'letters never read' by dori freeman

There's a part of me that's always a little surprised that Dori Freeman doesn't get more buzz - but then I go back to that self-titled record from last year and remember instantly.

And believe it or not that's not a diss or anything! Dori Freeman's debut was one of many fantastic records from women in indie country in 2016, anchored in terrific layered and textured production from Teddy Thompson - son of the legendary Richard Thompson - and bound together with Freeman's writing that was subtle enough to soothe but sharp enough to sting when you least expect it. But subtle, plain-spoken indie country records like this can be easy to overlook, especially given the understated presentation... at least until you go back and remind yourself exactly why it's so damn good, which you can bet I did before listening to Letters Never Read, her follow-up that was just released. Now I did have a few reservations about this - more than a few songs were covers this time around, and yet it was only a ten song release that somehow is even shorter than the last two ten song records I covered, clocking less than a half hour. But on the other hand, it wasn't like Dori Freeman didn't pack her last album with detail on its short length, so what did I find on Letters Never Read?

Well, it's pretty damn good, and it's pretty much exactly the course you would expect for an artist like Dori Freeman on a sophomore project: more diverse tones, showcasing more sides of her personality, a little brighter overall... and just a shade not as good as her debut. Oh, don't get me wrong, you'll definitely have fun with it, but as a whole, Letters Never Read can feel a tad slight, and I find myself wanting a fair bit more every time I'm finished with it.

Granted, a lot of this is because I really do like Dori Freeman as a singer-songwriter - she's got a distinctive personality that she can easily convey with understated charm but with real poise and maturity underscoring all of it. The first half of this record sees her heart getting broken a fair bit, but she's grounded enough to sigh and know the lovers are just as interchangeable to her in the end as she can be to them, and yet she's sure enough of herself to realize at the end they'll have more regrets than her - if anything, she's more exasperated that she's falling for them, or that her history leaves the guys leaving fast and giving her more scars to perpetuate the cycle. But for as much as that grounded, honest maturity anchors songs like 'Lovers on the Run' and especially 'That's All Right' in highlighting how her partner's alcoholism will be far more damaging down the line after she's gone, there's a greater element of whimsy that comes through on songs like the a capella 'Ern & Zorry's Sneakin' Bitin' Dog' or the traditional tunes 'Over There' and 'Yonder Comes A Sucker', and I appreciate that. And that's before we get the more introspective depression of 'Cold Waves' with that beautiful ragged fiddles section on the bridge, trying to find sanctuary in a partner and hoping that it doesn't pass down to her daughter, who is very much present in these stories but never in a way that feels forced.

And speaking of production, Teddy Thompson once again brings a warm diversity of tones to support her and while many of these melodies do hew close to traditional progressions, Dori Freeman knows how to bend them well to feel distinct - for as short as this record is, it doesn't waste any time repeating itself, from going a capella to just being supported by a snare drum on 'Yonder Comes A Sucker', from the jaunty banjo of 'Over There' to the darker acoustic-touched minor keyboard tones on 'Cold Waves' and 'That's All Right' with the subtle pedal steel. I will say there are a few touches of organ and arranged instrumentation that don't quite give the songs the fullness intended - I like the subtle hints of strings behind 'If I Could Make You My Own', but it doesn't quite fit as well on 'Lovers On The Run' and the weedy organ behind 'I Want to See The Bright Lights Tonight' doesn't quite balance with the richer guitar groove as well as I'd prefer. But still, most of these are pretty damn solid in their own right and I love that organic texture, especially on the fiddle - hell, even on 'Turtle Dove', the one song I'd probably call a throwaway, it still has that warm bass and more textured percussion. But it does contribute to a record that for as much detail as Dori Freeman fills in, with the inclusion of four covers and more than a few songs that have sparse instrumentation on a record flying under a half hour... well, again, it's hard not to wish there was more here, that the detail of the writing could be complimented by instrumentation. I'm not saying someone like Dave Cobb is the answer - there's something refreshingly homespun about the production and tones that might get lost there - maybe just a few more original songs that would let more of that songwriter side shine through.

But again, this is an easy record for me to like - the writing is great, Dori Freeman has the sort of understated charisma that's easy to like, and while I wish it was longer, what we do get is organic and charming enough to stick with me, there really are some great tunes here. I don't quite think it's got the same weight as her debut, but there's a part of me that thinks the more defined and distinctive color of individual tracks might stick with audiences better. Regardless, I'm giving this a very light 8/10 and definitely a recommendation - highly recommend you pick up this record, when it comes to independent, grassroots country, it doesn't get much better than this.

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