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The Crow Mother

[Self-released; 2012]

By ; October 22, 2012 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

The slightest mention of a musician escaping to the woods to record an album will probably bring to mind that Bon Iver record. As beautiful, introspective, and quietly striking as For Emma, Forever Ago is, it’s a record that seems like it’ll be forever lost in its own story, if not just because it was such a wonderfully harrowing tale of escape that not only musicians, but human beings in a constantly louder and busier lifestyle dream about. Freedom, liberation, release, retreat; whatever you call it, it’s something we all need in some form.

Wickerbird’s sole member Blake Cowan needed it, too. After finishing up his sophomore year of college in New York City, Blake borrowed a trailer and set up a residence in the densely wooded hills of Mt. Rainier. It’s not a particularly original story, but it’s still a personal one that produced a bare, human, and personal album entitled The Crow Mother. Unlike Vernon in his cabin (whom Blake will inevitably be compared to) who had plenty of additional instruments atop his guitar strums and falsetto choirs, Blake’s set-up is much more simple and stripped down. For the most part, there’s nothing more on the recording than Blake’s wispy, airy voice and his guitar.

And although there definitely is a charmingly humble likeness to Justin Vernon’s work, it’s Giles Corey who Cowan brings to mind. Again, Cowan is much less orchestrated than Barrett’s devastating and dark album from last year, but there’s a similar haunting vibe here, which seems a consequence of simple factors like sadness and solitude. On opening track “The Fold,” the guitar rings out before Blake comes in multi-tracked, sounding both hopeless and like he’s trying his best to keep his head above water; come the chorus, voices swirl around like ghosts in a haunted house, or demons from the past.

It draws you in, but The Crow Mother never quite hits upon this same vibe again. There are melancholic songs elsewhere, such as the dawdling “Beargrass” which follows immediately after, or the low, quiet climax of the closing title track, but Cowan seems to be trying to carefully work himself out of his gloomy state. It’s the occasional additional instruments that make the record sound its most hopeful, such as the modest banjo on “Tall Rooms,” or the electric guitar bobbing away on “The Birds.” Not to feed the comparison monster, but they’re kind of like friends quietly dropping by to help Cowan find a light, like the additional instruments do on For Emma.

The simple combination of Cowan and his guitar might make this sound like another folk record that can easily be passed by, but to describe it in such simple terms doesn’t really do it justice. Often Cowan layers his voice to create wordless harmonies, which add weight while accentuating the mood. On “Indian Blankets” you can hear every breath he takes between the lines, and it helps move the song forward at a natural pace. The instrumental “Hinterland” has him weaving harmonies with a slowed-down hum, like something from a Fleet Foxes demo, whereas on “Tripoli” his voice builds to create a force that catches you by surprise with its intensity.

However, it’s the sounds of Mt. Rainier that might well make the album what it is. Across the eleven tracks you’ll hear various sounds from the forest beside Cowan and his guitar. Birds tweet while “Druids” bobs along, a fire crackles on “The Crow Mother” as the nightlife in the woods chirps away, and on “Indian Blankets” you can hear the rain pattering away on the top of Cowan’s trailer. A train even comes into earshot on “Towertop,” like a reminder of life, far, far away. The album’s feel is also down to the way Cowan has recorded himself; often he sounds like’s he’s in the opposite corner of a large room, adding an effective reverberation not only to his voice, but also to his instruments (most notably the tambourine on “Druids,” which again echoes the sound of the percussion on Giles Corey). Cowan uses his space well: even with a whole forest and mountain surrounding him, he still he still sounds like he’s keeping himself to himself. You might well hear the forest on the record, but because it’s often such a hushed affair, I can’t imagine ever hearing Cowan and his guitar echoing through the trees, which makes sense, as you escape to be alone, not to attract attention.


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