There is a great deal you can do as a folk songwriter with little more than one instrument and your voice, but it sure isn’t the easiest thing to do while maintaining your listener’s attention. Of course, in the early stages of American folk music, that sort of minimal instrumentation was all but guaranteed. However, to be a folk musician nowadays usually involves face paint, a violent usage of tambourines, and merciless banging on toms. So it’s become a rare and celebrated occurrence when we stumble upon an album of simple, instrumentally spare folk music that can actually hold its listener rapt, which is why Bon Iver and Iron & Wine – no one’s idea of stage-commanding musicians – can play to gigantic crowds at festivals all across America. No one complains about the incongruousness of these bearded troubadours with achingly gentle voices holding forth with their sweet melancholia for sun-baked crowds of hundreds, even thousands. Somehow, people are hoping the elegant intimacy of For Emma, Forever Ago and The Creek Drank The Cradle will play just as well to a crowd of drinkers/stoners on a ninety-degree day, which, of course, it doesn’t. The reason it doesn’t work is that this type of album, probably more so than any other type, lives and dies by the setting of the listener. Distractions must be limited, incidental noise tuned out, in order to fully appreciate what a good basic folk album truly has to offer.
This is why I don’t envy Sonya Cotton her choice of genre, though calling it a choice is questionable terminology, as she seems like the perfect candidate for tranquil singer-songwriter music. The songs on her latest album, Red River, are almost uniformly pretty, but I’ve listened to this album maybe ten times and my attention unfailingly drifts less than half of the way through. Breaking it up into halves helps a little in terms of highlighting the second half’s charms, but Cotton really pushes it by arranging nearly every song identically. There’s eleven songs and only one of them is under four minutes, maybe two of them have drums, and all of them are as meek as a babe. Violins show up intermittently; there’s an occasional flute, but the formula is never drastically altered. The listener doesn’t really stand a chance of devoting their complete consideration to the near hour of agreeable melodies and lyrics that are difficult to fully register.
There are highlights, to be certain, but the fact that these highlights show up early in the album, when the listener’s attention is at its peak, may not be a coincidence. The title track manages to distinguish itself with a particularly exceptional chorus melody and some clever overlapping vocals that successfully heighten the song at its climax. “Bear” immediately follows and finds Cotton fully indulging in her appreciation of Joanna Newsom. Rather than coming off as a clone, this loping homage is effective and charming. “Cold and Dreamless,” despite the album’s near homogeny in tone, does stand out as the correct choice for the closing song, as the ample yet gentle harmonies allow Red River to effortlessly drift to its conclusion.
In between these songs, Cotton & Co. never really falter, which is appreciable, but Red River’s quality consistency is decisively tied to its sonic consistency. Cotton demonstrates a knack for skewing classic folk melodies to meet her persona, and there’s an abundance of surprising chord choices, but that’s where Red River’s surprises end. If Cotton is willing to push herself beyond the easy comforts of conventional folk, then her future work will truly be something to hear.
On a side note, if you have little to no tolerance for folk songs overly informed by or obsessed with nature, then this is a record you’ll want to avoid. Aside from the cover, which features Cotton in a loose, flowing white dress mourning over (literally, over) a dead deer, the lyrics are almost entirely about rural and idyllic life. To give you an idea, here are the titles of the first four songs on Red River: “Wild Wind,” “Red River,” “Bear,” and “Hunters.” I could go on, but I think you get the picture.