Plaintive. Poignant. Playful. Imperfect. Those are the first words to spill from my head this morning after the umpteenth listen to Northern California-based singer/songwriter Jonathan Foster’s Lantern Shade, which is due out June 1st. His is a roots-oriented folk music accented by elements of Americana rock. Acoustic guitars often glisten like whitecaps rising atop an ocean wave, pleasing to the eye (or, in this case, ear) but shielding turbulence just beneath the surface. His gravelly vocals remind me of Steve Earle’s – and, truth be told, some songs do, too.
The 10-track set opens with “Stardust Starwater,” about feeling alone and cleansing the soul “up in these mountains.” The song includes a line that describes life in the modern age to a proverbial T: “I’m living enlightened insanity.” “Alpine Line,” which follows, is fun and frolicsome, akin to many a Dan Fogelberg tune. The strong “May Our Paths Cross Again,” inspired by the passing of John Prine, is next; it focuses on the fleeting nature of life and love: “May we all age like Prine and soak in the sunshine/May our dreams collide, one by one by the streamside.”
“Into the Black” is not a cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)” a la the classic Chromatics version, unfortunately, but a lackluster original that seemingly stares down the many-colored beast known as doubt. At least, that’s what I think it’s about. Like the melody, the lyrics meander. It’s a weak link in an otherwise sturdy chain.
Things pick up with the mid-tempo “The Ship,” in which he employs a smart metaphor while surveying the world in which we live: “we’ve never seen the ship rock like this, the cold splash chills my bones/and the stigma of it all may be our greatest call – can we stand, embrace, or will we fall?” The traditional Appalachian song “Shady Grove,” which dates back more than a hundred years, continues the folky flavor; it’s one of my favorite songs on the album.
“When It Gets Dark” finds Foster thinking of ditching it all and heading to Buffalo (or maybe Alaska): “Yea, I’m moving in light years, to stave off all my falling tears/Cause, when it gets dark, that’s when the problems start.” It’s not dour and sour, however, but wry, sly and silly: “Not all who wander are lost, but in this case, we’re so lost!” (Something tells me it’ll make for a fun centerpiece for his live shows.)
“The Beast,” on the other hand, is a serious stab at articulating the issues that lie before us. “Got chaos at the disco, put the panic in pandemic/Think you’re better than someone, take a deep breath in/Finding grace in the twilight, searching for an answer/Deeds not words tell truth, listen, learn, to survive/if we don’t feed the beast, we all get to eat/if we don’t feed the beast, we’ll all be free.” As that stanza demonstrates, it’s an all-purpose broadside, with “the beast” essentially being anything the listener wants it to be. The penultimate track, “Ani Bird,” celebrates the blackbird native to the Americas; it’s uptempo and fun, and sure to have audiences singing along.
“This Is Where We Belong,” written with Morgan Hannaford for a “folk sister and ghostly prankster” who passed away too soon, closes the album in heartfelt fashion. It’s a tremendous tune that’s accented by lyrics that celebrate as much as grieve. Here’s a live version from last year:
All in all, Lantern Shade is exactly what I said up top, veering from solid to stellar. The strongest songs here, including “May Our Paths Cross Again,” “Shady Grove” and “This Is Where We Belong,” would have been at home on my long-ago folk show, where I mixed old and new tunes with abandon. It’s a good album.
The track list: