Review Summary: Courting Autumn proves Shannon is a beautiful, blooming folk artist; if only her ideas didn't fall to attrition.
Pamela Wyn Shannon has no qualms about what she’s creating. In the first album in a series of four seasonal albums, brazenly titled Courting Autumn
, she doesn’t so much as court autumn as she does trample it. What this does for the record is left to the eye of the beholder: Courting Autumn
, at best, is the kind of melancholic folk that breathes with the musky scent of its Irish setting and influences, among them the likes of Nick Drake and Pentangle. At its worst, Courting Autumn
comes off like an uninspired, ham-fisted spiel that proves Shannon is more interested in showing off her concept than naturally exuding it. Fortunately for Shannon, Courting Autumn
is more solid than not, even if she does stumble through her roots.
Stumble she does in the string arrangements of “O Bittersweet Dear Madeline,” the heavy-handed recorders more distracting than atmospheric, a conscious decision to call forth the inspiration Shannon got from her one-way ticket to Ireland. Shannon’s vocals, which flow best when she doesn’t work so hard to inject variety, feel constrained and too focused, unnatural in direct contrast with her natural setting. But the rustle of leaves that begin the rustic guitar chords of “Tis Rambletide in Ambleside” march into a more organic, billowing segment of Courting Autumn
, the violins and cellos a wavering balance for Shannon’s higher notes and poetic ramblings. When she parts into a sparse tempo midway through, “Tis Rambletide in Ambleside” takes on a more appropriate improvised feel, the twangs and slides the product of luxurious craftsmanship.
At these intervals throughout Courting Autumn
, Shannon creates some of the most beautiful folk songs the year has seen. “Vespertine Autumn,” the slow shudder of its violin and breathless clarinet residing neatly under Shannon’s shifting falsetto, creates one of the album’s more memorable folklore. “Ca’ The Yowes” stands out as the most beautiful track, a strong sitar based track that complements Shannon’s vocal inflections and whose careful arrangements tend to the song’s running time without noticeably padding it out. “Cold Blows the Wind” could be viewed as Courting Autumn
’s most festive tune, seemingly lifted straight from a bonfire gathering with the lull of its country twang. Elsewhere, the sinister down tuned “Netherworld” darkens its cello arrangements into a fitful nightmare, Shannon’s vocals occasionally pushed into a wind tunnel that gives the song an appropriate, dream-like essence.
Otherwise, Courting Autumn
repeats too many of its faults, the wispy “Michaelmastide” placated by the jarring recorders, while the tedious “September’s Way” shifts Shannon uncomfortably behind the instruments so that she’s almost lost amongst the mix. Courting Autumn
regains itself for the soft viola and cello arrange “Fare-Thee-Forlorn,” a spoken track that cements Pamela Wyn Shannon as a blooming folk artist and storyteller. Had Courting Autumn
been as immediate and inspired as its best segments, as telling as its sporadic recording (parts of Courting Autumn
were made in bathrooms and barns), and as timeless as its medieval construction, it could have been proven more than the sum of its parts. As is, Courting Autumn
is just as solid as an autumn leaf, and hopefully by the time winter settles in, Shannon has figured out how to write about it without swallowing it whole.