Sarah Siskind’s Modern Appalachia is long overdue as it’s her first album in nine years. This is an important project as evidenced by the gleaming list of guests including Bill Frisell, Justin Vernon, Jeff Sipe, Mike Seal, Daniel Kimbro, Rose Cousins, Julie Lee, and Elizabeth Foster. Don’t let the album or single title fool you; this is not the acoustic mountain music of the Carter Family or other rootsy music from the region. Instead, this is an album heavy on atmospherics and electric guitar, as suggested by the guests with stellar recording and engineering from Jason Lehning at Echo Mountain Recording Studios in Asheville – one of the best recorded albums this writer has heard in some time. Siskind wrote all twelve songs and produced this stellar effort.
You may have already heard the single “In the Mountains” about which Siskind says, “This is the first song I wrote when I moved back East after 14 years in Nashville, originally to rural Virginia for three years before settling in North Carolina,” “When writing this song, I let go of all thought process and just channeled what I felt being back in an environment where mountains, water, and nature-based quality of life are paramount. This song has become an anthem for me, for my return to the Southeast, my faith, and my need to discover who I am as a complete human.”
The soothing signature guitar tones of Bill Frisell and warm acoustic bass of Daniel Kimbro imbue the title track which follows in similar fashion to the epic opener “Me and Now.” Featuring 12 original compositions, the album explores Siskind’s relationship with her home state of North Carolina, with herself and the inherent dichotomy of the phrase “Modern Appalachia” in these current times. Each song digs deeper into her questions, fears, and realizations to reveal the rawness, earthiness and spiritual depth of the region that built her foundation.
Elegant guitar work graces “Carolina” where Justin Vernon joins Siskind on harmonies. It takes you back to the gentle churning rock of the early ‘90s but if you try to imagine a different, perhaps acoustic backing, it’s not hard to envision classic country, mountain music oriented vocalists like Dolly Parton or Patty Loveless singing. Siskind’s voice is purer, smoother, a bit less emotive than those two, but it’s the combination of the ambient electric sounds and her ability to glide above that oft sparkling accompaniment that lures one in.
A standout track in “A Little Bit Troubled,” which begins with Siskind singing alone with reverb like Neko Case. There’s acoustic guitars in the beginning but the mode switches to a frenetic, energetic, bluesy vamp that builds in intensity behind the memorable chorus “Daddy’s on the run, Mama’s on the bottle, Baby’s gonna be OK, just a little bit troubled.” The band takes it out in full throttle, suggesting more trouble may be on the way. The mid-tempo “Maybe There’s Love Between Us,” is simpler, which a three chord backdrop and Siskind’s evocative guitar solo midway as she sings velvet smoothly throughout.
“Danny” has one on the best melodies juxtaposed to the sassy, defiant, crunchy “Punk Rock Girl“ that builds to a thunderous climax. Frisell returns to gently caress “Porchlight.” The timbre changes with the feverish gospel intensity of “Rest in the River,” where her voice soars, underpinned by her own sterling guitar playing. It’s reminiscent of that southern gospel sound from Olabelle a few years back and plies a very different, but engaging rumbling sound that stands apart from the others. She ends with the high harmony sound, assisted by Rose Cousins on “I Won’t Stop” as the guitars jangle and chime, much like they do throughout. Again, this is an outstanding project that will have listeners returning, if not for the whole experience, certainly for songs such as “In the Mountains,” “Carolina,” “Little Bit of Trouble” and “Rest in the River.”
With songs recorded by Alison Krauss, Wynonna, Randy Travis, Madi Diaz, and countless others, Siskind built her musical career in Nashville. Her music found its way to television and has been heavily featured on the hit television show Nashville, as well as Pretty Little Liars, The Wire, Army Wives, Teen Mom 2, and Awkward. Since the release of her debut album, Words in the Air in 1995 she has released four albums and three EPs prior to this one.
- Jim Hynes