Review Summary: Pushing the realms of what folk music can be.
Grace Cummings' voice could have been enough. It’s an alto that’s capable of a belt, rasp, growl, and whisper, all while being incredibly emotive, seeming to just barely hide pain that you wouldn’t wish on a soul. Isolating Cummings voice and backing it sparsely with a guitar would have been enrapturing enough (as evidenced by her excellent, if not obvious Bob Dylan-worship, debut Refuge Cove
), but the roar of her creative spirit is enough to match and elevate the roar of her voice. All of the great folk artists of the 60s and 70s that revolutionized the genre sneak their way in to Storm Queen
, whether it be the cadence and delivery of Bob Dylan, the lyrical lilting of Joni Mitchell, or the unhinged nature of Tom Waits, but the true inspiration that Cummings draws from these seminal artists on her sophomore album is the need for revolution within the genre. The raspy growl of her alto voice is powerful enough, but in the moments where Cummings artistry breaks loose, she makes music that may be umbrellaed under the folk label, but takes the genre into a kind of art folk that is nearly impossible to define.
Even with the plethora of ideas that it employs, Storm Queen
is an incredibly cohesive album that clearly has Cummings' imprint on each track. Opener “Heaven” leads with Cummings' clearest strength, highlighting her voice as the song grows in intensity behind powerful cries of “Ave Maria
”. Melodramatic “Dreams” trades in Cummings' prodigious guitar playing for piano, with the wrenching, near over-top delivery making good use of her other career as a stage actor. “Freak” has a gorgeous fiddle solo that interplays with the piano and creates a sound that wouldn’t be out of sorts in a Western cowpoke saloon. Each track has its own incredibly unique sound, but they all remained tethered due to Cummings' voice and by following the main tenets of folk music - Lyrics based around humanity, simple song structures based around an acoustic guitar, and emotive, no frills vocals. This produces an album that keeps the listener wondering what innovation they’ll hear next, but also one that is still cohesive enough to not sound like ideas being thrown at a wall in order to claim creativity.
This ability to brilliantly diversify a simple sound is perfectly illustrated in the discordant decadence of the title track. The song starts with a teasing amount of baritone sax that quickly drops away as Cummings sets the scene for a bluesy acoustic murder ballad. That baritone sax comes back in tantalizing moments throughout the song until a complete explosion about two minutes in. A screaming saxophone solo, distorted slide guitar, and a sense of impending doom from the rhythm section sees out the final two minutes of the song, showing that Cummings' songwriting ability is impressive even when her powerful voice isn’t part of the mix. Storm Queen
borders on gothic for the entirety of its runtime and the title track sees it fully embrace that label.
isn’t just moments of imaginative chaos, however. Part of what makes those creative gambles so successful is the moments of restraint throughout the album. There are a number of pared back songs that still hit the emotional highs seen in the rest of Storm Queen
and, when at their strongest, these simpler arrangements even manage to even compete with the less conventional moments. “Raglan” again brings us back to the folk ballads of the seventies, with a repeated coda that is accompanied by fiddle, banjo, and slide guitar. “Up In Flames” is only Cummings' voice and a simple strummed acoustic guitar, but never overstays its welcome as the longest song on the album. Storm Queen
was recorded in a very small number of takes and that rawness shines through on “Up in Flames” and the bleak, near lullaby-like track “Two Little Birds”. Some of the acoustic tracks, while perfectly serviceable and fine songs, do tend to pale in comparison to the more creative output seen here. However, these songs are few and far between and each track still has their own moments that make them more than just fine tributes to days-of-folk-music-past.
Closer “Fly A Kite” has the listener believing that Storm Queen
will end on one of these stripped back moments, which would be a fine, if not somewhat anticlimactic, ending. Just as we are being lulled into this simple sense of security, a high pitched operatic trill appears to remind us of the artistry that Grace Cummings possesses. While this vocal line isn’t anything mind-blowing, it is a reminder of the brilliance of the compositions heard at the peak of this album. None of Storm Queen
’s eclectic moments of brilliance are forced into songs for the sake of being eclectic or artistic. Folk has seen a lot of deviance in its expected patterns in recent years, but much of the steps other artists take seem as though they want to make folk music for the modern times, with the addition of electronic elements being used most often, to various degrees of success. Even though one would be hard-pressed to describe it as simply a “folk” album, Grace Cummings doesn’t shy away from that label on Storm Queen
. The innovations she introduces are all logical steps in the folk lexicon, but it takes a special artist to take the logical and make it brilliant.