Courtney Hartman and Taylor Ashton’s debut recording is an intimate affair, born of their close friendship and harmonious ideas about how they want to make music. Ashton, a Canadian, is a visual artist as well as a singer and songwriter perhaps best known for playing clawhammer banjo with the band Fish & Bird. Hartman is also a singer and songwriter, a guitarist steeped in roots music from growing up in Colorado, with a Berklee education as well. The two are now based in Brooklyn.
Been On Your Side is a quiet album of rootsy chamber folk with a definite indie-pop feel to it. Both of these musicians have far-ranging influences, but a clue to the overall feel might come from Hartman’s cover of Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” on her earlier solo album. (I’m sure we’d all be astounded if somebody tallied up the number of musicians in their 20s, 30s and 40s who were profoundly influenced by Petty.)
Another clue to the kind of songs and sounds that brought them to where they are is the lone cover on this debut, Nick Drake’s “Which Will.” Drake of course was one of the progenitors of chamber folk, but I’m curious if they learned this song via Drake’s recordings or Lucinda Williams’s cover. Either way, it’s one of the sweetest, most melancholy love songs ever, and they’ve given it their own beautiful treatment, a full duet that in their singing style straddles contemporary folk and old-time music.
Another obvious reference point for this duo is Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings, but the comparison is too easy and only skin-deep as it were. In harmony on their most old-timey songs Hartman’s vocals can resemble Welch’s a bit, and Welch & Rawlings often combine banjo and guitar, but that’s about as far as it goes.
Highlights in addition to the Drake cover include the title track, a delightful waltz-time love song with delicate, feathery picking on both instruments; “First Of Us,” another love ballad, Hartman playing and singing solo with an occasional accent on electric guitar; the duet “Dead To Me,” one of those sassy give-and-takes in the tradition of Johnny & June’s “Jackson”; and the strongest of the bunch, the opening track “Wayside.” You can really see the way these two perform with locked-in concentration on each other’s every nuance, Ashton singing lead and playing banjo, Hartman joining in on harmony and flat-picking her resonant arch-top.
(Free Dirt, 2018)