Graded on a Curve:
Jennifer Castle,
Monarch Season

Jennifer Castle, Canadian doyenne of contemporary folk, has released six full-length records since debuting in 2006, originally recording as Castlemusic, a handle that became the title of her third album as she began using her birth name. Monarch Season is her latest, its nine tracks notably constituting the first truly “solo” set she’s released, featuring her (and only her) singing and playing guitar, piano, and for the first time on record, harmonica. Gentle without faltering into the insubstantial and offering sustained passages of beauty that avoid the ornate, the music’s intimacy is a strong suit. It’s out digitally October 16, with the vinyl + songbook and CD following on November 20 through Paradise of Bachelors.

Regarding Jennifer Castle, there is no shortage of contemporary musicians of similar comportment; Paradise of Bachelors makes no bones about this, offering a long list of names (as is their way) that strikes me as astute. I’ll resist simply regurgitating them here, but will add that mid-way through, the comparisons shift to artists a generation or two (three, even) older than Castle, which is in accord with a sound that is flush with singer-songwriter folk rudiments while still managing to sound fresh.

But the opening instrumental “Theory Rest,” infused as it is with glistening fingerpicking and a tangible yet subtle layer of the ambient, establishes that Castle is after more than the standard strumming and emoting. While this attribute is recurrent across the album (notably, the vinyl and CD “include lengthier ambient segues of onsite environmental recordings between songs”) it doesn’t overtake Castle’s thrust as a current folkster; to the contrary, the next track “NYC”  bursts out with the aforementioned harmonica, Castle citing Kath Bloom as her inspiration for playing the instrument.

The mention of Bloom (long a fave of discerning folk listeners) only reinforces Castle as the real deal, though it’s the strength and gorgeousness of her voice in “NYC” that should settle the matter. The prettiness of her singing extends to “Justice,” which features gentle tones that don’t falter into the fairylike, partly through urgency directly related to her lyrics, words it’s worth mentioning that are a cut above the norm, in how they strive to communicate emotions and ideas rather than impressing the listener with how they are communicated.

This goes hand-in-hand with the brevity of the song, the whole totaling under two minutes, as “I’ll Never Walk Alone” culminates in under three, but more forcefully as it flows with the harmonica back in the scheme. It’s with the title track that Monarch Season makes its first major shift, with Castle at the piano, the pace slowing and the aura of the contemplative rising.

The ambient quality is also present, but is highly (and appealingly) understated, as the sound of chirping crickets is so distant and quiet that it can impact the ear like tape hiss. In turn, Monarch Season has something of a lo-fi facet without it ever coming off like a deliberate strategy, which I appreciate. Initially, “Moonbeam or Ray” foregrounds the ambient tendency, though it is the track’s pensive nature that ultimately perseveres (although there is a very slight hint of speed manipulation underneath) as Castle shifts to strummed guitar and harmonica.

It’s back to piano for “Purple Highway,” the first cut on the LP to really send the needle demarked “solo record” darting into the red zone of the deeply personal, largely due to how she allows her playing to linger; please don’t read that as meandering. Instead, it’s reminiscent of a recording that was later viewed as preferable to subsequent, more polished and streamlined versions.

“Veins” (first recorded in 2006 on her Live At the Music Gallery CDR as Castlemusic) begins with an ample serving of mouth organ, but along with more sturdy fingerpicking, Castle’s singing, as she accentuates her aptitude for the sultry, is the true highlight, and a nice appetizer of closer “Broken Hearted.”

While briefly bringing Jimmy Ruffin’s ’67 chestnut to mind (a fine thing to have on the brain), the cut is far more in the mode of a Brit-folk chanteuse striving for a late ’60s gal-pop single (Andrew Loog Oldham is loitering just outside the frame). It’s just the right degree of wispy, and with a concluding stretch of the ambient lending cohesiveness to the whole. Jennifer Castle’s Monarch Season, tidy but not slight, is a welcome destination on the contempo indie-folk landscape.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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