Is there an unfair, uphill battle that female artists face in rock and roll? The battle I refer to is the race to find another female artist with which to compare them to. While we certainly pull out the big, comparative guns for male-fronted rock bands, and solo artists, there isn’t quite the sheer vehemence that seems to come out in reviews of female artists. Pity the poor women who were endlessly compared to Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morrisette, or, in the wake of alt.country’s peak years, Lucinda Williams. Is it that these artists are really that much alike, or are we just that tied into our notions that women sound like women and therefore must be compared to other women?
Enter Sera Cahoone. Sera, a veteran of the Pacific Northwest music scene, having played with Carissa’s Wierd and drummed some for Band of Horses, has crafted her sophomore album, Only as the Day is Long, in a gorgeous and haunting country and folk inflected tone. You can almost see the critics salivating the words: Neko Case.
But let’s back up for a minute and, at the risk of sounding somewhat hypocritical, let’s talk about Gillian Welch. If there’s an artist, voice wise, that Cahoone can be compared to, it’s Welch, and indeed, the timbre of Cahoone’s voice is rich with the aching emotions that Welch has been so adept at conveying. But I’m not trying to box Cahoone in – the depth of her background is enough to prevent that. Only as the Day is Long is filled with moments that play to type and escape it.
Opener “You Might as Well” plays to type and does it beautifully. It plays as the doppleganger of A.A. Bondy’s “Vice Rag,” the stomping rhythm, fueled by the guitar’s intricately picked melody, echoing classic blues and folk traditions with an obvious sense of pop construction. The bridge is the song’s most beautiful moment, small bursts of chords emerging from the melancholy. The title track echoes the soaring choruses of Welch, banjo, harmonica and others falling in to build an absolutely uplifting song. Songs like “Shitty Hotel” and “The Colder the Air” use the pedal steel of Jason Kardong to build up dusky sounds reminiscent of the earlier, mesmerizingly dark work of Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter.
When Cahoone works out of the album’s general feel, on songs like the shimmering, shuffling country-pop of “Happy When I’m Gone,” she’s as unique and independent as the artists I’ve stacked her up against. I may have played into critical stereotypes by comparing her to other female artists, but the names I invoked are artists who, while starting in a genre that is well-worn and hollowed, have carved out a unique place for themselves and their sounds. I like to think that my comparisons aren’t pinning Cahoone down, but rather, are evaluating all the many places she is likely to expand on her talent. Here’s hoping I’m right. – j.neas