I don’t know when or how I fell back in love with singer-songwriters. Specifically, women sitting in the intersection of folk, country, and pop. I actively ignored the stuff in my 20s and 30s in favor of raucous hardcore and blog-approved indie rock. However, I’ve been an Amy Grant fan for years, and my wife and I fell in love to Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Also, many of my favorite acts that made ’90s Contemporary Christian Music were talented artists like Christine Dente, Susan Ashton, and Margaret Becker.
MAYBE THIS KIND OF STUFF HAS ALWAYS BEEN IN MY MUSICAL DNA BUT DIDN’T REALIZE IT.
Thus, it shouldn’t have surprised me when Sleeper, the new album by Anna Ash, hit me right in my aural sweet spot. Released on Black Mesa Records, this 11-song release bursts with slinky, understated folk-pop that avoids obvious cliches with superb production and earnest energy. Imagine tender, lilting folk tunes that are somehow not up their own ass with pretentious ideas. The subtlety and strength call to mind a heady blend of Kathleen Edwards, Lucinda Williams, and Tracy Chapman – and it’s glorious.
Ash’s delicious alto sets the stage for this project from the first notes. She possesses a fantastic range and clear tone reminiscent of a coy wood nymph dancing and flirting with an innocent intimacy. Her fulsome vibrato grabs your attention with a hushed immediacy that banishes the rest of the world from your senses.
THIS INTENTIONAL AND PURPOSEFUL MUSIC COMPELS YOU TO SHUT UP AND LISTEN.
With “I Was Just Your Evening,” Anna Ash uses a loping country song to deliver an understanding, yet bittersweet goodbye to a departing lover. The lyric, “You were just another storm who refuses to listen to the verse at the end we pretend to understand until you hear it again. All of sudden you’re so broken,” is heartbreaking and poignant.
IN LESSER ARTISTIC HANDS, SLEEPER WOULD BE FORMULAIC FOLK MUSIC PERFORMED BY A SOLO SINGER STRUMMING A GUITAR.
Instead, Anna Ash ensconces her voice with sparse instrumentation that provides just enough supporting color without overtaking her. The scratchy guitar chords give the right lift to her trilling vocals, while the measured bass and drumming display supple movement. The music then features sublime organ swells and delightful horn bleats to help take another step beyond generic adult contemporary.
It helps that Ash is a mature songwriter who speaks from the heart, and the dreamy textures of her arrangements befit her lovelorn lyrics. Because of her deep experiences, she knows to leave the bullshit behind and seek out something or someone better.
AGAIN, THE BEAUTY OF SLEEPER BEGINS AND ENDS WITH ANNA ASH’S OUTSTANDING VOICE.
It feels wizened but never tired. Especially when she extends her normal range to add extra heft to her lilting vibrato. Such efforts pair well with lyrical themes that find her moving forward instead of wallowing in her pain. It’s a fantastic and moody album to begin 2022.