Whoever it was that coined the term “Americana” as a genre descriptor must have been trying to harness the kind of indefinable heritage-hybrid that is the stock in trade of husband-and-wife duo Al and Emily Cantrell.
The Cantrells’ eclectic acoustic blend has been confounding Music Row’s more categorically inclined for nigh on three decades now, necessitating the twosome’s staunchly independent, grass-roots approach. Their lengthy career as a trail-walking indie-label act significantly predates the internet-driven DIY music scene and the conscious cultivation of the Americana genre’s generously sized net, which is still nearly too narrow to encompass the full range of ingredients contained in their signature sound.
Their fifth release, “Weather Reports”―technically, their fourth outing doing original material billed as The Cantrells―binds the duo’s broad influences as cohesively as any artist could likely accomplish without wholly sacrificing the elements of surprise and variety. A small but mighty cast of supporting players (including Barry and Holly Tashian and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Jim Hoke) enhance the proceedings with subtlety and taste.
The immediate standout qualities, as always, are guitarist/vocalist Emily Cantrell’s achingly rich and resonant voice and partner Al’s fiddle and mandolin work, on which he maintains an ideal balance of technical skill and back-pocket spirit and spontaneity. These particular strengths, though they could carry a set of lesser material if pressed, enliven a solid set of primarily Emily-penned originals that range from the mournful, tango-like title track to the joyous, Cajun-styled “Black Bayou,” a showcase for Al’s sure-fingered fiddling.
Such contrasts define the entire album, which offsets romantically themed numbers like the English/Irish-flavored “‘Twas a Full Moon Ago” with topical songs that clearly link the Cantrells to the American folk-singer tradition epitomized by The Weavers and Woody Guthrie and carried forward by their socially conscious 1960s emulators and the ’70s singer/songwriter set led by Joni Mitchell and her heart-on-sleeve ilk.
If one had to trace the Cantrells’ musical bloodline, as non-linear as it may be, that cross-section of activist spunk and inward-looking emotionalism would in fact constitute a significant portion. The album’s meteorological moniker forecasts a cluster of progressive-minded cuts, the first of which pits the global-warming controversy against an unexpectedly playful gypsy-jazz/swing backdrop. This is musical black comedy at its most incisive, as Emily deadpans “adios . . . we’re toast” and offers couplets such as “I remember the Earth―my starter home / Now I’m in space living under a dome.”
Their topical thread connects the album both overtly and understatedly, with “Woody Guthrie’s Shoes” providing a direct reference to an important musical/ideological forebear and Emily’s “Stand Right Here” serving as a sturdy response to military aggression, poverty and concerns about climate change. Emily’s Gibraltar-solid rhythm guitar work, while impressively rendered throughout the album, is as resolute here as the song’s outcry.
“Miner’s Letter,” meanwhile, paraphrases the almost impossibly comforting (and actual) last words of a trapped and dying West Virginian coal miner, combining unspoken issues of labor-force justice with the compassion embodied in Emily’s vocal. Her capacity to convey deeply bittersweet sentiments, while brought to the fore on several tracks, is at its most potent here.
For all its sobriety, the album is leavened by a pair of influence-revealing chestnuts from the ’30s and ’40s, respectively. The grin-prompting “Me Myself and I,” originally introduced by groundbreaking jazz vocalist Billie Holiday, points to the jazz undercurrent in Emily’s own singing style, as well as her ability to tackle, like Holiday did, jovial and melancholy moods with equal ease. The album’s closer, “Timber Trail,” continues the duo’s lifelong fascination with the cowboy-song genre, a central component of their artistic personality that once spurred banjo virtuoso and buddy Béla Fleck to call them “the best folk duo since Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.”
Any true fan of well-crafted but unvarnished acoustic music (provided they don’t mind politics plopped onto their musical plate) will find a refreshing cloudburst of inspired picking, writing and singing on the sometimes stormy but often bracing “Weather Reports,” an album whose outlook, all told, remains partly sunny.