Family can be a hell of a thing, can’t it? Let’s say you’re a singer-songwriter and your father happens to be Arlo Guthrie (pressure enough), with your old grandpa being the legend that is Woody Guthrie. That’s gotta be tough, there’s no doubting that. What if your song writing partner – and husband – happens to be the great-nephew of John Steinbeck? That’s a lot of classic Americana to live up to right there, and it’s the place that Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion find themselves as they release new record Bright Examples for the first time in the UK.
Unsurprisingly the album is generally alt.country, with a bit of 60s pop thrown in for good measure, features a Jayhawk or two and Neal Casal, and is co-produced by Vetiver’s Andy Cabic and studio whizz-kid Thom Monahan. Whilst it’s expertly played and produced, the duo can’t quite reach the heights of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, or even M Ward and Zooey Deschanel as She & Him. Still, it’s a very pleasant listen all the same, and the family names are far from disgraced by the songs found on Bright Examples.
Irion takes the lead on the majority of writing and vocal duties, which is a bit of a shame when Guthrie has the more captivating voice, witnessed by the Emmylou and Gram-aping ‘Seven Sisters’. It’s classic alt.country, featuring a keening duet between lap steel and Hammond organ and apparently inspired by a conversation with Odetta. That’s not to say that Irion doesn’t have his own fine moments, with the snappy country-soul of ‘Speed of Light’ and ‘Target On Your Heart’. Both meet the “psychedelic” description that Guthrie applies to the songs on the album, while also recalling the out-and-out pop moments of The Pernice Brothers with Irion’s breathy vocals matching those of Brother Joe. The latter also deserves credit for the amusing couplet “there’s a target on your heart / but he’s not aiming to please”, telling the tale of a caddish lover.
If there’s one criticism I can aim at the record – and it’s a pretty significant one – is that it’s far too one-paced. There’s a middle section sag that can’t really be ignored, making the record feel longer than its relatively standard 40-odd minutes. What it lacks is a good kick up the arse, and a freewheelin’ tune or two as the record never really lets itself go. ‘Hurry Up and Wait’ gives it a decent shot with its martial beat and breezy acoustics, yet it’s followed by a dip in tempo and quality with ‘Dupont Circle’ drab and ‘Butterflies’ failing with its Stevie Nicks-style mysticism. Having said this, the slower Irion-sung ‘Cry Quieter’ is truly lovely and dripping in sweet and gentle harmonies, and closing title track ‘Bright Examples’ is a soulful and gritty way to end the record, with some welcome electric guitar added, and Irion’s voice choked with emotion.
It would be harsh to be over-critical of what is essentially a well executed example of alt.country and, for the most part, Bright Examples is just that. What I’d really like is for Guthrie and Irion to cultivate more of an edge, push the boat out and really let go of themselves. If they can then perhaps future records will contain that extra kick required to take it from pleasant, to essential.