Willie Reviews Shannon Lay’s “August”

Willie Reviews Shannon Lay’s “August”

On August, Shannon Lay conjures up folks like Vashti Bunyan and Jackson C. Frank in a quiet trip into the resting psyche. Here’s RPM’s review:

The folk revival movement of the early ’60s, for all its coolness, could be a little exuberant. Upstart, cosmopolitan chic became overeager naivete in a few years’ time. Folks like Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, and Bob Dylan played hugely important roles, but the shifting tides of the late ’60s and ’70s eventually brought in more insular singer-songwriters—ones who made home tapes, sat in gardens, and listened to the birds. Hippies, but not exclusively hippies. Jackson C. Frank is a transitional figure between the two, followed by Vashti Bunyan and later Sibylle Baier. This new breed of musician created a long lineage itself, possibly because it is only loosely rooted in a particular historical moment. And this is where Shannon Lay lands on her new record, August. Those darker, inward-looking singer-songwriters loom heavily over her sound, and she endeavors to find something personal and natural after a long time’s considering.

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Lay’s most pronounced tendency in her writing is to seek consistency in all forms. In reaching their ends, these songs prefer to pick a theme and ruminate. On the purely acoustic tracks, her picking style is unvarying within the song, and even from one song to the next. It consists of an accented first beat that rings longer than the others, and the energy dwindles throughout the measure until it’s reignited in the next. Wherever she goes lyrically or thematically, she locks in that groove. The opener, “Death Up Close,” introduces it in one of her most energetic performances. When it isn’t frantic, like on “Sunday Sundown,” it is a blank canvas; nothing cracks the except the occasional bass note. With a few exceptions, her go-to is to create an unbroken line from start to finish. “Wild” features an unusually high pedal point that occurs throughout, built like a barrier around the delicate song. As I listen to it, I wonder if it traps the song or focuses it. It’s probably equal parts of both.

By performing in this static style, she aims to cultivate a headspace where everything in question happens in a moment of deep consideration. In the tradition of something like Sibylle Baier’s “Tonight,” the tone is meditative, but somewhere between exhausted and suddenly enlightened. The massive gray areas are what make this style so effective. The first verse of “Nowhere” before the orchestration comes in uses that fadeaway quality that almost implies that the song could die out at any time. There’s something compelling about the fact that the song has no guarantee that it will finish and we just have to hope that it won’t fade out. But, of course, it always completes itself because it has to. The songs hobble along through wind, snow, and rain.

Shannon Lay, photo by Denée Segall

When it isn’t walking down a garden path and overflowing with the lushness of green things, it ventures out into peripheral genres and dynamic techniques. When the style changes, it’s alarmingly cool. Songs with a full band like “Nowhere” and “Something On Your Mind” boost peaks and soften valleys. Her voice jumps and starts. With the latter in particular, a Karen Dalton cover, you can hear her interpreting it in real time. Lay does justice to Dalton’s original by incorporating a strong sense of rhythm. She explodes at points like nowhere else on the record. On “Unconditional,” she uses an organic phrase on the guitar to introduce the verse. It’s unmetered, only falling into a tempo as her voice guides it to do so. Like a series of crashing waves, it feels unbounded and imagistic. August offers a whole lot of routes in, and once you’re in, you’ll feel like staying.

Score: Music for observing ant trails.