Carrie Newcomer – Until Now – topical folksongs wrapped in kindness: Album Review

Carrie Newcomer brings us her latest album, Until Now, a collection of finely played and intimate folk songs. The lyrics reflect on the current challenges in the world from a Quaker perspective, with rich imagery from the natural world and observations of the day to day.

Newcomer has been releasing music since the 1980s, originally in the band Stone Soup and since 1991 as a solo artist. This is her nineteenth solo album. In parallel with her recording career Newcomer writes prose and poetry and hosts a podcast series  The Growing Edge that explores her philosophical concerns with writer Parker J. Palmer.

The album was recorded at Airtime studios with her long time engineer David Weber. Airtime is a retreat as well as studio and this enabled the vaccinated band to live and work together. On Until Now Newcomer provides vocals and guitar and her frequent collaborator Gary Walters plays piano and pump organ. They are joined by Jordan Tice on guitar and mandolin, who has worked with Newcomer on her last three albums, and Paul Kowart on upright bass, who plays with Tice in the band Hawktail as well as being a member of Punch Brothers, and Allie Summers who plays violin and provides vocal harmonies.

Throughout the album Newcomer’s lyrics address the themes of living in challenging and changing times and finding hope in the patterns of nature and each other’s company. The lyrics are informed by Newcomer’s wider philosophical and spiritual thinking as well as her environmentalism and concerns for social justice.

Carrie Newcomer

A Long Way Up is a gentle start to the album and introduces the recurring them of “the great unravelling.” The music is subtle, with guitars lightly strummed, bass notes carefully picked out and the violin used for emphasis.  This is is also the first song where we hear Summers’ wonderful harmonising with Newcomer. The lyrics use the image of climbing a ladder “rung by rung” to make things better.

Across Newcomer’s albums Walters has provided distinctive piano work which enrich Newcomer’s melodies. He has co-written a couple of this songs on this album and the first of these is The Handing Over of Time. On this track Walter’s delicate piano notes combine with a circling picked guitar to create a feeling of time slowing down at dusk. This feeling is heightened by the bass notes and the melancholy violin that complement Newcomer’s vocal descriptions of how the “light goes golden” and the “shadows lengthen.”

 I Give Myself To This has a slow, hymn like feel, and the lyrics address being in the present moment and receiving tender support from others,  “Like someone leaned over and gave my forehead a kiss.” In contrast Throwing Rocks At The Moon is a bright and lively bluegrass sing along driven by violin and guitar. In the lyrics Newcomer reflects on the confusion of the present times “I don’t know what this all means.”

On I Will Sing A New Song Kowart’s steady bass picking and Tice’s powerfully strummed mandolin chords help emphasise that the lyrics are an affirmation of strength “I’ve never done this before At least not to now.”

The most lyrically distinctive and upbeat track on the album is Like Molly Brown. The lyrics celebrate strong, resilient women. There is a verse each about Molly Brown. Rosa Parks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Lucretia Mott that summarise some of the activities that made them famous.  The central image and refrain is of Molly Brown rowing a boat at the scene of the Titanic’s sinking. The fast pick and strum on the mandolin blends with the violin’s melody to give the song a forward moving dynamic.

Who Done It returns to the gentle pace of the first tracks on the album. It is a soothing song with each vocal line echoed by the bright picking of the mandolin. The lyrics remind us that “… it’s all right It’s not too late It’s just going to take time.”  The violin over the top of the bowed bass enhances the calming affirmations of the lyrics.

On The Wolf Is At The Door the dynamic piano rings out and creates a feeling of uneasiness. The lyrics paint a bleak picture of the world “when the sky goes dark and the wolf is at the door.” The song ends with a call for a fundamental shift in our thinking to enable people to overcome the current challenges of the world “We can’t just be healed, we must be transformed.”

Underwood’s dog is referred to in two songs before it becomes the central metaphor in the light hearted My Dog. The lyrics are about being the best version of yourself, “…the person my dog thinks I am.”

The conclusion of the album is On The Day You Were Born which considers endings that are also beginnings and the impact of the power of water, in particular days and season that “pass and grow”, and “gentle rains”, “quiet lakes” and “summer storms.” .

The album provides a set of topical folk songs informed by Newcomer’s contemplative Quaker philosophy of kindness to yourself and others. The lyrics encourage us to live in the moment and call on us to work through life’s challenges. Newcomer’s clear contralto vocals are warm which suit the evocations to live life meaningfully.

The band’s performance sits somewhere between a chamber orchestra and a bluegrass folk band. Across the album their considerable individual and collective skills provide unfussy playing and great interplay that elevate the songs.

There is a companion book for poetry that has longer piece related to the songs. As with all Newcomer’s albums a percentage of sales is given to charitable organisations such as the Inter Faith Hunger Initiative, and there is a online concert filmed at Airtime studios behind a paywall on until 29th September which also encourages donations to supported causes.

John Bradbury

Marty Duda talked to Carrie Newcomer about making Until Now, her 19th Album. He asked her about life as ‘the prairie mystic.’ She had the answers. Watch HERE