First Impressions: Still Life by Carson McHone

In an interview with Marty Duda, Carson McHone remarked about life during the pandemic, “It’s strange how time and space seem to sort of go both ways at once and it feels like it’s been a long time and it feels like no time at all.” In some respects, that sums up her latest full-length release, Still Life, which leaves listeners—or this listener, at any rate—treading time in the best possible way. When it ends, you’ll swear it just began, with the crush of melodies, vocals and guitars in between its start and stop having pushed and pulled you like Play-Doh. 

Recorded with husband Daniel Romano, who also produced, in their living room, the 11 songs traverse genres like a stone skipping across a pond, with elements of folk, rock, country and R&B revealing themselves like the ripples reverberating through the water. At times, the result reminds me of Tift Merritt. The songs lean heavy into folk, yet borrow liberally from other genres. The opener, “Hawks Don’t Share,” is one example:

The song, about how musical collaboration is often less collaborative and more competitive, dates to at least 2018, as she performed it in a Daytrotter Session released that November. (I’d planned to write about her sophomore set, Carousel, at the time, do did much research—aka YouTube viewings—but preparations for our move south ultimately took precedence.) The basic blueprint remains the same, but now it’s amped up and includes a sterling sax solo from David Nardi. The title track features surrealistic imagery (“I cried all the color from my eyes”) while delving deep into the stasis of depression, when each day bleeds into the next. The video approximates the experience by showing her running through the darkness and, eventually, into the light.

The folky “Fingernail Moon,” which is accented by Mark Lalama’s accordion, relates how the person people see is often a sliver of who they are. “Someone Else,” another tune that reminds of Tift Merritt, is about loving someone who’s involved with another. “Spoil on the Vine,” which follows, conjures the Velvet Underground circa their debut with Nico, while the lyrics themselves mine self-doubt and insecurity about, if I surmise correctly, the writing process. The thing about any artistic endeavor is that, for most, it’s what McHone describes here—a “privileged pain” and “just a hunger we create.” (All that said, my interpretation is probably off.) 

“Sweet Magnola,” another highlight, dates to at least 2017. It’s as stunning now and it was then, featuring bittersweet lyrics about how setbacks force us to grow up. “Only Lovers” talks of one-off meetups with a special someone and how their life situations just don’t allow for romance (thus, “we’re only lovers, we’re not falling in love”). “End of the World” melds a country lilt with a VU-like drone to nice effect. “Trim the Rose” explores the words said and unsaid in a relationship (in this case, if I read between the lines, parental) and how both, often, go unheard. “Folk Song” borrows from the Appalachian folk song “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies” (which is perhaps best known, these days, as the Dolly Parton song “Little Sparrow”). The album concludes with the dramatic confessional “Tried,” in which she’s accompanied only by an acoustic guitar.

All in all, Still Life is something of a musical collage, with seemingly discordant parts forming a mesmerizing whole. Some, such as Duda, may hear Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in spots, while others—like me—may discern the Velvet Underground and Tift Merritt. But, first and foremost, all will hear Carson McHone herself. Still Life is one of those albums that first perks the ears and then the soul, with the oft-oblique yet poetic lyrics reflecting back aspects of ourselves while the music, on an emotive level, does the same. It’s a great album. Definitely give it a go. 

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