The first single and opening track on Dori Freeman’s delightful sophomore album is a sunny, optimistic and warm portrait of love called “If I Could Make You My Own.” It’s a sweetly swinging tune full of professions of all the good that will come in the wake of true love – not coincidentally written in the wake of a new relationship in Freeman’s life. One of her mentors, Teddy Thompson, who produced both this album and her solid self-titled debut, sings harmony on the choruses, and Richard Thompson plays some tasty lead guitar.
The video for this one is a similarly sunny series of scenes from an old-time fiddlers gathering and fair in her hometown of Galax, Virginia, complete with the rompings of a toddler one assumes is Freeman’s daughter.
I love the archaic, nearly Shakespearean stylings of Freeman’s writing when she’s in this deeply Appalachian mode: “I will never to grieve and yearn, If I could make you my own.” There’s more of it in the gently loping “Turtle Dove,” about a young woman surprised by and still not entirely trusting in the permanence of new love: “Say you know my deepest heart, and if we should ever part, you will wear my mem’ry ‘neath your breast.” All sung in her deliciously warm alto that combines with her writing and Thompson’s production (and even the album’s graphic design) to give Freeman’s music the feel of classic country from the ‘50s or ‘60s.
Freeman is indeed well-versed in the musical traditions of her Appalachian homeland; too well to stray very far from the kind of sad songs that are the region’s stock in trade, no matter how things may be going on the home front. Thus we get songs like “Just Say It Now,” in which the protagonist implores a new lover to hurry up and get the parting over with so she can go on with her life, sadder but wiser; and the deeply blue “That’s All Right,” in which yet another one prepares to part from a lover who is a problem drinker and perhaps abusive.
For sadness neither of those holds a candle to the deceptively languid “Cold Waves.” On first listen it could be the lament of just any sad, restless young woman, until slowly it dawns that this is a report from deep in the psyche of someone with clinical depression. Everything looks normal on the outside, she has a good marriage and family, but she keeps sinking under those cold waves. Then the very languidness of the song’s arrangement becomes a cause for alarm, hopefully a wake-up call to those around her. It’s a canny and brave song.
Still, there are also plenty of upbeat moments, including a cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s evergreen “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight,” the traditional old-time gospel song called “Over There” in which the singer threatens various manner of violence to Satan. “Yonder Comes A Sucker” dances to a martial drum beat and no other accompaniment, as she sings from a man’s point of view as he celebrates the loss of an unfaithful girlfriend. And finally there’s the entirely a capella ditty, as Appalachian as they come, called “Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog,” which was written by Freeman’s grandfather.
In addition to the Thompsons pere et fils Freeman has enlisted a raft of superb musicians to add their bits to this album, including her beau Nick Falk on banjo, vibes, drums and percussion; Aiofe O’Donovan with harmony vocals on “Just Say It Now”; Alex Hargreaves and Duncan Wickel on fiddles, and country regulars Neal Casal and Jon Graboff on guitars, including Graboff’s fine pedal steel that adds just the right atmosphere to “That’s All Right.”
Freeman’s debut gained her a lot of fans and got her noticed by the likes of No Depression, NPR and The New York Times. Letters Never Read is a solid follow-up that bodes well for her staying power as an Americana star.