Jeanne Jolly has accumulated a rather cosmopolitan resume; classical voice training at school, touring vocalist for a well-known jazz trumpeter. Her heart lies, however, with country music, and the Raleigh, North Carolina singer-songwriter hones her twangy chops well on her full-length debut, Angels. Jolly’s ten songs do not hew to the conventional country sound, but incorporate her varied sensibilities. Now, this reviewer fancies himself an aficionado of the rough-hewn and acoustic in both his old-timey and contemporary musical preferences, so Angles has proven to be something of an unexpected surprise.
Jolly writes about love, loyalty, and heartbreak in this collection, adding her own skills on the baritone ukulele to a band that features pedal steel, heavily overdubbed backing vocals, and a rhythm line both precocious and splashy. Her own voice bends to the needs of individual songs, fulsome and unrestrained on some, delicate and breathy on others.
“Angels on Hayworth St.” is the alt-country rambler I am looking for—a strummed guitar pierced with a pedal steel overtones in the opening ramps to an up-tempo but melancholy tune about the pains and pleasure of home. “Good Man” is an even simpler ode—just a guitar and Jolly—exalting the virtues of a, well, good man. “The Hard Way” is a straight up country song that reminds me of nothing if not an early 1990s Patty Loveless or Lorrie Morgan hit. I like it.
“Round and Round Again” may best exemplify Jolly’s songwriting style. A waltz, it opens with a dreamy, sad, sway, recalling a happy dance with a loved one.* But that “was a long time ago,” that happiness is gone and in the chorus Jolly’s delicate tone transforms into triumphant vocal strides backed by choral layers and studio production, dropping any irony or minor key allusions in a sincere declaration of accommodation to pain. “Long Way Home” repeats this formula, if in a more subtle and less-highly produced fashion. So, too, does “Happy Days Café,” a catalog of life’s losers in the pseudonymous café, that begins over a piano that makes me think I’m waling in Memphis, but ramps into another confident, up-tempo, but sad chorus.
(*This may not be a lover. Jolly’s late mother features prominently in the album’s creation story.)
While Jolly’s arrangements can at times veer toward the overproduced, she and her band do a fine job at keeping sight of good acoustic instrumentalization, and thus the listener reminded of the rootsy heart of this music. But she does push the boundaries of the country aesthetic. “Sweet Love” has brush and triangle backbeat and a melodic tone that is more reminiscent of soft jazz for Sunday mornings. “The Kiss” has ethereal tones, a drum-machine style heartbeat, tempo changes, and deep breathy vocals. In what may be this album’s most memorable moment on “Tear Soup,” Jolly begins with a happily loony waltz about stewing in a breakup, vaults into vocal fullness, and then crescendos into an operatic fermata that blends yodel and aria in one note.
Altogether, I like this album, even if it is not how I ordinarily take my twang. In fact, I find myself amazed that a week after I have put this down, the sweet, sad melodies still ring in my head. Those more adventurous than I will positively love it. It is good that artists continue to explore and expand the boundaries of our music.
This is a guest review by one of our review contest winners, Christopher Graham.