At the tail end of last year, Espers' Meg Baird released Leaves From Off the Tree, a collection of traditional English and Appalachian folk songs recorded in a trio with British singer Sharron Kraus and her Espers bandmate Helena Espvall. Casting aside Espers' baroque psychedelia and hushed electricity, Baird and her friends showcased a breathtaking affinity for this traditional material with their spare, homespun arrangements and bracing vocal harmonies. The relaxed atmosphere and spirit of that album now shines through again on Dear Companion, Baird's captivating new solo collection of traditional ballads, unlikely covers, and well-crafted originals.
Recorded in her Philadelphia attic apartment between sessions for Espers II, the album features Baird using only her voice, guitar, and/or mountain dulcimer. For these deeply intimate recordings, Baird has clearly chosen songs that she knows inside and out, and is so able to treat each with an overriding empathy and affection. Her faith in this material helps give Dear Companion its easy air of self-assurance, but most often it is her astonishing voice that draws the attention. At once delicate and earthy, Baird's vocals sound naturally suited to the purpose of breathing fragile new life into these romantic tales of love gained and lost, as she firmly stakes a claim in the folk lineage alongside such 60s-era artists as Shirley Collins or Anne Briggs.
Two of the traditional songs on Dear Companion--" The Cruelty of Barbary Allen" and "Willie O'Winsbury"-- also appeared in different versions on Leaves From Off the Tree. And Baird's stunning performances here amply illustrate several of the reasons why these ballads have been among the most frequently re-interpreted (and dissected) folk songs of the past few centuries. Outfitted with their simple, eternal melodies, each of these songs frames a deceptively oblique romantic narrative that is open to enough analysis and interpretation to fuel a full semester's gender studies curriculum. (Poet and scholar Robert Graves, for example, once even speculated that the poor misunderstood Barbary Allen was in fact practicing witchcraft and murder.) For her part, Baird wisely chooses to let these songs speak for themselves, delivering them simply with a thoughtful, meditative air of eyewitness.
Although several of these traditional ballads do feature some anachronistic imagery and language--including the occasional reference to kings, maidens and lords-- Baird is careful to balance the album with several tracks of more modern origin, skillfully blurring the distinction between the various vintages. The infidelity and loss of the title track--an old Appalachian folk song--is mirrored almost exactly on Baird's stoic version of Jimmy Webb's "Do What You Gotta Do", a song perhaps most memorably associated with Nina Simone. And Baird strikes the album's most sensuous note with her cover of "Waltze of the Tennis Players", which was originally written and recorded by the obscure 70s folk act Fraser & Debolt. "My love for you is an overnight sensation," she sings in a seductive near-whisper, a sentiment which surely echoes the thoughts that fans of exquisitely wrought folk music will have for this lovely and enrapturing album.