Album Review: Angela Easterling – BlackTop Road

  

easterling4There’s an almost otherworldly quality to Angela Easterling’s sophomore disc, a largely self-written Americana affair produced by singer/songwriter/sideman extraordinaire Will Kimbrough. BlackTop Road is soaked in an intelligence and far-reaching historical sense that makes you suspect its origins couldn’t be entirely human, or at least that all of these songs and performances couldn’t have emanated from one young woman. Easterling, whose voice comes with nary a hint of twang, offers one possible explanation in the eerie “A.P. Carter’s Blues”:

I’ve been haunted by a spirit I can’t seem to lose
Since I got that old Clinch Mountain dust upon my shoes
I stood up at his grave and I thanked him for his song
But when I walked back down that hill, I didn’t walk alone

Infected by the spirit of A.P., the album is at its most historical with timeless-sounding originals like “Field of Sorrow,” a beautiful message from beyond the grave that would fit right in with the Carter Family catalog, and “Stars Over the Prairie,” Easterling’s reworking of lyrics originally composed by her great grandfather.

Even when the sound is more contemporary, the interests are often deeply historical. “The Picture” grapples with legacies of racism, as the narrator discovers a picture of a black man’s hanging amid her deceased father’s personal effects and wonders what role he played in the event. The worst part is the uncertainty of not knowing the whole story (“Cause I always knew you as a good man, standing righteous, strong and tall/But here’s the chance I never knew you at all”), though by the end she seems to have settled on him having been at least complicit if not actually personally responsible, with repetitions of “Daddy, why?” conveying her hurt and confusion.  Meanwhile, “American I.D.” finds her battling her own biases on the way toward embracing the differences that built a nation:

I get so angry at my neighbor, on so much we disagree
I decided to surround myself with those who think like me
But all these colors that divide us, all these differences we spite
Maybe form our true foundation, and in the end will seem so slight

Easterling and Kimbrough wisely balance some of the record’s historical interests with real immediacy by including a few deeply-felt love songs set wholly in the present, the best of which is “Better.” In a gorgeous performance that radiates self-aware strength and vulnerability, Easterling lets a lover in on that most tender of all confessions: “I sleep better in your bed than I do in mine/I look better in your eyes than I do in mine.“  “One Microphone” (reprised in French at the end of the record) discovers a unique stage-based metaphor for love, while “Just Like Flying” is at least slightly more compelling than any song likening being in love to flying has a right to be, though not so good as to keep it from being one of the album’s weaker songs.

The finest moment comes with the convergence of the historical and the personal. Easterling tears her way through the album’s title track with such indignant energy that you’d presume the song’s basis in reality even without knowing the whole back story: The state cut a road through the South Carolina farm that has been in Easterling’s family for more than 200 years, destroying the house built by her great grandfather… then, in an apparently well-intentioned slap in the face, marked the road with the family’s name. The whole situation has Easterling understandably pissed off, so her biting delivery on “Blacktop Road” must have come naturally. Thankfully, she matches the attitude with an eminently well-crafted lyric that artfully invites listeners into the story, such that they’ll be able to get pissed off right along with her. Music as a shared experience.

I’m usually pretty picky about keeping the singer separate from the song, but the clarity and consistency of the narrative voice on BlackTop Road make it difficult to not feel like you’re learning quite a bit about Angela Easterling as a person during the 49 minutes spent under her spell. Above all else, the thing you’ll learn is that, regardless of what may come her way, she’ll be fine. There’s no stopping a talent of this magnitude.

Download the album from Amazon MP3

Comments

  1. Rick says

    I listened to all the song segments on CD Baby (my computer lacks a Flash Player for MySpace) and liked what I heard, but not enough to warrant a purchase. The three songs that caught my ear were “AP Carter’s Blues”, “Field of Sorrow” and “Stars Over the Prairie”. Angela is very talented but just not “different” enough to grab my attention these days. Also, I’m not sure the production by Will Kimbrough is a totally positive thing here as his own music seems to lack real distinctiveness as well. What can I say, I’m a really tough sell these days, even for really attractive female artists…

  2. Mike Basiewicz says

    I don’t give up my money easily!!! When I make a purchase, I expect that I will get every dime’s worth and then some!!! With that said, I can’t praise Angela’s music enough!!! I own both her CD’s and listen to them often. There’s something special about her that I haven’t found in too many performers……..honesty. She’s the real thing. She writes and sings from her heart, and may I say……..she does it very well!!!! I just saw her live again tonight and she was great!!! She even performed three songs she had just written and they were just what you would expect from this talented lady!!! I’ve been a musician pretty much my whole life so I know when it’s real.
    For my money, Angela gets my bid every time!!!!

  3. easy ed says

    pretty insightful review CM…i enjoyed reading your thoughts. this is a body of work i’ve been living with since the release date, and like a fine wine it ages well. there’s a lot good music out there these days, and i think angela’s songs and stories, as well as the performances, are some of the best. in the fast go-go world of the internet it’s easy to click and listen to each song for a few seconds as rick did, and just not hear something compelling. i know…i’ve missed a lot by doing the same, and have had to double back many times. tis a shame though.. as he’ll not get what i did…she has the gift.

  4. RonFWNC says

    One should not post a “review” of an album based on listening to the samples on a website. It’s not fair and its not necessarily accurate. It’s like reviewing a movie on the basis of its trailer. To dismiss “Black Top Road” on such a basis is really unfortunate, because it’s really a fine album, and Angela Easterling is certainly a significant talent.

  5. says

    I really like this. Another $8.99 is now Amazon’s. Actually, it was Amazon’s yesterday, but I forgot to come back and comment. Great review and obviously convincing.:)

  6. says

    Nice sophmore release from Angela Easterling.

    There’s a reason Back Top Road has made it’s way onto the Americana airplay charts. Well written songs delivered with passion and soul by a singer with something to say and a voice to say it.

    The Americana field is quite competitive these days but Angela Easterling is making quite a name for herself and winning praises from the likes of Roger McGuinn and Jim Lauderdale. But dont take their word for it…. give the CD a listen yourself and find out why it’s gaining airplay and getting rave reviews.

    My personal favorite is the title cut which is about her own familys farm being taken by the state for a 4 lane asphalt road. American ID is another track worthy of attention. Engineering and artwork add to this fine release.

    It’s not hard to see why she was selected for both Kerrville and the Americana showcase this year. It’ll be interesting to watch her career progression, but she’s certainly making waves in the crowded American field with this sophmore releae.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Country California’s C.M. Wilcox on the recent release from Angela Easterling: BlackTop Road is soaked in an intelligence and far-reaching historical sense that makes you suspect its origins couldn’t be entirely human, or at least that all of these songs and performances couldn’t have emanated from one young woman. Easterling, whose voice comes with nary a hint of twang, offers one possible explanation in the eerie “A.P. Carter’s Blues” [...] [...]

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