December 5, 2016
Released On August 6, 2013
Released By Lightning Rod Records
All great art is built around an “x” factor. A secret weapon unique to that artist or piece. With Amanda Shires, that secret weapon is a faint tremble, a subtle catch in her voice. It instantly conjures up thoughts of Dolly Parton, and like Dolly she brandishes it with versatile precision. She can make it convey longing or strength, heartbreak or contrition, often within the same song. Down Fell The Doves is an embarrassment of riches, but the crown jewel is that voice.
I’ve spent a lot of time with this record, really trying to figure out how to articulate what makes it special, the alchemy that grants it such a unique spot in my heart. What I settled on, is magic. Down Fell The Doves sounds like woodland magic. Putting it on is a bit like the Pevensie kids stepping through the wardrobe. The album conjures up flower crowns and incantations, fairies and some bits of shadowy danger. (Seriously, “Deep Dark Below” is such a witch-y, full moon concoction that it has earned in a regular spot on my halloween playlists.)
I’m a sucker for a strong album opener and “Look Like A Bird” checks that box, but it goes a step further. Shires sings of longing to find her place in the world and wanting to soar. But towards the end of the track the vocals cease and her sterling fiddle playing kicks in, giving the track a sort of visceral weightlessness that can send chills down your spine.
That spine-tingling feeling is what constantly draws me back to my favorite three song sequence on the album, “If I…,” “Stay,” and “The Drop And Lift.” A classic, affair-on-the-road song, “If I…” always stuns me with its brevity. It’s barely two minutes long and it feels even shorter, like Shires has emotionally wrung out all the entirety of her “would you even wanna know?” premise, and feels content saying nothing else. “Stay” snuggles in right next to “Horchata” by Vampire Weekend on my hipster Christmas party playlist. It’s dreamy and evocative and full of so many crisp little vocal moments that you wanna replay it instantly the moment it finishes. “The Drop And Lift” might be the best track on the entire album. It’s so awash with emotions, but at its core, is also this anthem of melancholy but optimistic perseverance. To me, it distills the whole beautiful feeling of the album.
If Shire’s voice is the bedrock here, her charisma is the cherry on top. (#mixedmetaphors). There’s so much sweetness and humanity here. Everything is such genuine without feeling cloying. A couple years ago, I had the tremendous privilege of seeing her at Ashland Coffee and Tea (photo proof!). It was an almost surreally picturesque evening, a performance built on crazy talent and thousand watt personality. Afterwards, my friend Saher and I chatted with her and the band after the show. For the most part, I like to separate art from the people who create it. But in Down Fell The Doves, Shire imbues the whole project with so much of her approachable humanity that the two are inextricable. It’s magical.
Yielding a cavernous sound that’s as inviting as it is foreboding.
Down Fell The Doves is a rich album, both in terms of its sounds and its themes, but one thread I’d highly recommend tugging at is the way Amanda Shires balances big ideas and small details. The album starts with “Look Like A Bird,” and while the first few lines — “I want to look like a bird / Careless, weightless, and free” — align with the big-picture thinking most people engage in when longing for the ability to fly, the following lines — “To perch like a yellowhammer / To have a grackle’s gait” — zoom way in. Shortly thereafter, in “Bulletproof,” she unpacks a hypothetical (“What if I really could be bulletproof?”), peeling away layers of a seemingly simple idea until the finer points — including a capitalist underbelly — are scattered here, there, and everywhere. “Stay” gets at the age-old subject of romantic reliability via idiosyncrasies like “I raised the blinds so I could see exactly how the snow falls in Florence;” the first verse alone is enough to make you feel like you’re there in the room as well, drawing on that frosty window. And “A Song For Leonard Cohen” reads like a dream that has one foot in fantasy and the other in the waking world, with the specificity of lines like “I’d conveniently misplace my wallet” and the way she elevates the simple pleasure of hearing Cohen speak. I didn’t realize it until I started writing this blurb, but the perfect metaphor for this tremendous balance she achieves is right there in the opening track: “Like the trees grew for standing / And they stand for me / Like the trees grow branches / And they stand for me.” As Big Boi says in “SpottieOttieDopaliscious,” go on and marinate on that for a minute.
So once again we’re here… a record that features my musical kryptonite; strings. Instruments that evoke more emotion out of me than any other. Apparently I can’t just lavish Down Fell The Doves with five stars for this reason alone and be done with it. Even more I’m being told we don’t use a numbered rating system and never have done, and to stop being a wise ass and not shoehorn another Brexit mention into my piece. Curse you imaginary editor! Truth be told, there’s a lot more to this record than just some fine fiddle playing. As a Brit, I usually find it hard to get that emotional connection when listening to either country or Americana, but Shires has crafted a thought-provoking and intricate collection of songs that instantly resonated with me. I instantly fell in love with “Devastate” upon my first listen, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say “A Song For Leonard Cohen” didn’t hit me right in the feels after his recent passing. Shires voice is so delicate yet so powerful and when accompanied by some very strong songwriting, it’s an enchanting listen. Down Fell The Doves works for me on every level. It’s a high-quality record where everything clicks into place and it really connected with me in a way I never expected. It’s a charming, cool album, and one I can’t wait to share with people over the holidays.
James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist
The word that comes to mind most when listening to Amanda Shire’s wonderful album Down Fell The Doves is “spacious.” Right from the fiery opener “Look Like A Bird,” the music demonstrates a beautiful restraint in its arrangements that makes it feel both classic and a little modern. Every instrument, every note, feels incredibly deliberate, perfectly placed. This means that when we get a little extra something in a song, it feels even more special, as in the guitar solo on “Bulletproof,” the horns on “Stay,” and the piano on the sadly timely “A Song For Leonard Cohen.” This idea carries over into Shire’s lyrics, which are often filled with simple, evocative imagery. But don’t take this to mean the music is without feeling or passion. The songs often deal with the difficulties of life and relationships, always insightful but never maudlin. It’s an album with a sort of crystalline beauty that can be both appreciated artistically and loved whole-heartedly in equal measure.
David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer
Is it showing my age and how uncool I am if I admitted that the first time I heard Amanda Shires’ name was in a profile of her husband on CBS Sunday Morning? I know that’s something your mom or grandmother would say, but sometimes I miss out on things, and I am grateful that I have friends like Josh to help right the wrong. I didn’t know what to expect when hearing Down Fell The Doves for the first time, as the album cover reminded me of joyful Instagram posts from popular bloggers. Shires’ music is darker than the cover indicates, with southern gothic imagery, including stories about the devil preying on the innocent (“Deep Dark Below“), an imagined evening with one of our finest songwriters, discussing that time Phil Spector pulled a gun on him (“A Song For Leonard Cohen“), and men who make messes of relationships (“The Garden Song“). The last one has some beautiful descriptive lyrics, comparing gardens to romantic love: “Gone away, the sparrows and the silver leaf plums / Fruits have fallen wasted and left spoiling in the sun.” Country albums, especially those with female singers, are always mixed with the vocals up front and loud, which I don’t always love (though it’s probably why Miranda Lambert’s “Fine Tune” was so unfairly maligned by fans). To its credit, Doves is wonderfully produced — everything sounds balanced, including Shires’ sublime voice and excellent violin playing, which never seems excessive or out of place. I was happy to find that Shires’ 2016 release, My Piece Of Land, expands on her fantastic songwriting and offers another great set of songs. I am an idiot for not following through on Shires after that CBS Sunday Morning appearance, as Down Fell The Doves is by far one of the most Melissa-esque picks we have had in Off Your Radar‘s first year.
A perfect visual companion to the song (and record) that’s dreamy and esoteric in its cyclical design.
The sliver in the Venn Diagram of my musical taste and of my mama’s is a cherished, tiny little slip. There lives Carole King, Carly Simon, Fleetwood Mac, Queen, and that one song from Lady Antebellum about doing a shot of whiskey and staring at the door. Though growing up we could always agree on what to hear in the car, her awkward “well that’s nice, I guess” in response to my playing “Where The Girls Are” off the Gossip’s That’s Not What I Heard over the phone to her and shouting “Isn’t that shit rad?!” marked the break in our musical journeys. This album, though, seems like a perfect bridge between her uplifting, often folksy, gospel kind of jam and my fuzzy, real, darker kind of vibe. No one can dispute the high, brittle loveliness of Amanda Shires’s voice; her vocals remind me of silk rubbed raw, of the sound you hear when you bite into water chestnuts. The album is indisputably pretty, the violins and chill drums a pleasing background to that voice. Lyrically, though, Shires presents a bleaker landscape, often twisting the experience of a woman into thorny tales like suicide daydreams or going on a date with Leonard Cohen only to stick him with the bill. The strongest track, “Look Like A Bird,” speaks of fleeing a life like a bird sailing on the wind, turning the fairytale her voice and frequent violin would suggest into the Angela Carter version of the same story. This more cynical version of her reality is not belied by her appealing sound, but bolstered by it instead. In that marriage, this album reaches further into a mainstream audience than it would without the sound, further into those who step off that path than it would without the lyrics.
I’m not gonna piddle around with a long-winded, contextualizing intro this week because I’ve got to get this out right away: “Bulletproof” alone is worth the price of admission. You can’t tell me “Bulletproof” wouldn’t have been the Kill Bill theme song (instead of “Bang Bang“) had Tarantino heard this record circa 2002. The haunting tremolo of the guitar? “Bring out the switch blades?” Come on. Quite frankly, I’d find it hard to believe that it wasn’t written immediately after a Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 binge. What I love most about this particular record is that after listening a few times, trying to glean some metaphorical significance from the lyrics, I’m thoroughly convinced that it’s purely a song about being bulletproof, and that’s awesome. Of course there are a variety of feelings and vibes on Down Fell The Doves, but I prefer when Shires goes deep, and dark, like on, say… “Deep Dark Below.” And then there’s the melancholy reflection of “If I…” or the perfectly bluesy “The Garden Song.” The common thread on all of these records is the less-is-more production approach. Production is all about choices. Shires and company seemingly made the right choices on every single track: just the right amount of guitar here, a sprinkle of distortion there, then add in the special sauce — the syrupy string arrangements. All perfectly proportioned, and void of fat. More, more, more.
Neko Case would probably be the closest comparison, but if Dolly Parton and Tom Waits had a daughter, she might be Amanda Shires. “Deep Dark Below” is a great example of this theory; a beautifully sung story about what the devil does when he’s bored. Put on some old boots on and, if you dare, close your eyes. Stomp the beat to “A Song For Leonard Cohen” and you’ll almost hear the gravelly voice of Tom Waits. Amanda has the musical chops to play with people like John Prine and The Texas Playboys, but it’s her songwriting that I hope people will wake up to, hopefully sooner than later.
A considerable singer and fiddle talent, it’s her grasp of pathos and narrative that makes her music so outstanding.
There’s this bit that comedian Rory Scovel does about a guy who lies about knowing how to play piano and somehow gets a job playing piano in the lobby of a hotel. Through the errors of his deception, the guy eventually grows increasingly confident as the conceit continues. Years ago, I attempted to run sound at Sprout and it was precisely like that as I underestimated the terrors that one can experience as a system begins feeding back. Unfortunately for me, the performer for this show was Amanda Shires. Fortunately for me, I got to hang out with the forgiving Amanda Shires and fall in love with her unique spin on folk music. Throughout Down Fell The Doves, there are hints of the songs I recall her performing several years back. Yet, there is an ephemeral haunt that layers itself nicely into the exteriors of a number of the stories Shires sings about. “The Garden Song” is a quick example to point towards when explaining how she juxtaposes what one might expect from a violin within this genre. “Bulletproof” is probably my favorite track to be found on this release. With its catchy refrain and immaculate production, it does a lot with a little and nails every twist and turn throughout. The one song that immediately drew me in was “A Song For Leonard Cohen” for fairly obvious reasons. With his recent passing, the song felt even more fitting to me. Whenever we dream about spending a moment with our greatest inspirations, I think it would play out a little like Shires waxes philosophically about through shared drinks and adventures in Barcelona, absorbing every word that Cohen utters with intoxicating interest while relating through comparing experiences of a world that never felt that your voice ever had anything to offer. There might be something inherently sad in knowing that this exchange can never happen now, but there’s something invigorating about imagining for a second what it would be like.
I was racking my brain trying to remember where I had heard of Amanda Shires when Spotify told me that Jason Isbell was a “related artist.” That’s it! I thought — she’s the one who sort of saved his life when it seemed that the demon rum and the lures of the road were going to claim the tough southern rocker. So yes, they are related — married with child, in fact. So that helped me place Shires, a singer-songwriter who can dance you to the end of love with a burning violin (obligatory Leonard Cohen paraphrase), which she plays to a fare-thee-well. Down Fell The Doves is her fifth album and gives us a completely assured artist, with a distinctive take on Americana that is immediately compelling. Her hook-up with Isbell was not only good for the home life — his guitar is all over this album, a biting foil to her violin. Not only is this a post-Isbell album for her, it also falls into that wonderful sub-category of Dylan-influenced records that takes more from Time Out Of Mind and subsequent albums than his so-called classic period. Late-period Cohen is here, too, and he even gets his own song, a beautifully delicate waltz. I’m a massive Lucinda Williams fan and Shires scratches that itch a bit, too, so I can’t wait to listen to the other albums.
Clearly this is a well-crafted album. Everything is in place, which one expects from a fifth album. We have quite a solid foundation in traditional music and country with enough pop infusion to make for songs that should be accessible to practically anyone. There’s plenty of introspection to plum. It is not in want of melodious phrases. For a record that travels well-worn paths and is pleasantly pastoral, it is significantly solid. While not exemplary to my proclivities, it’s definitely a commendable addition to your library if its style strikes your fancy.
It’s easy to get distracted by the audacious music of this record. Though “Americana” in design and execution, Shires and the team she commands here do their best to test the limits of that catch-all genre with brief jaunts into other spaces, whether they be lounge settings (“A Song For Leonard Cohen“), spaghetti western scores (“Bulletproof“), or even waltz formations (“Stay“). The music even fiddles around with the traditional train rattle by both drowning it in a wall of country twang (“Wasted And Rollin’“) and bringing it to an inching crawl to mirror a song title (“The Drop And Lift“). All these choices make for a wonderfully rewarding distraction, but a distraction nonetheless since the real strength of this record lies in Shires’ words, words that are unmistakably Americana and provide melodic parables for the listeners, with plenty of ear-catching chicanery that keep the listener alert and agreeable. “The first track sets the stage for this concept, with its descriptive desire that borders on fable, but it’s really album highlight “Bulletproof” a few songs later that serves as the best example for Shires’ lyrical tricks. In the first stanza alone, she utilizes a bare, almost out-of-time, repetition of the word “tiger” to reinforce the inquisitive approach of the song. One odd thing in a song isn’t worthy of pause and reflection, but five back to back definitely are leading the listener to wonder what else is out of place in the song, right before Shires poses her first question on the meaning of bulletproof. Her ability to guide the listener in her own line of thinking, before it’s even established, is jaw-dropping, and it pops up in plenty of places elsewhere on the record (“Box Cutters” being a prime example). It’s not just the art of songwriting she so uniquely understands, but the art of storytelling as well, both narrative and anecdotal. It’s a talent that makes this record so remarkable, and an ability that renders Amanda Shires completely unmatched in music today.
The Greatest Story Ever Told by The Lawrence Arms
Chosen By Shannon Cleary