Karen Haglof’s New Album “Perseverance and Grace” Owes More to Horsepower than Horses this Time Around

Karen Haglof
Perseverance and Grace

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Current oncologist and former Band of Susans/Rhys Chatham Ensemble guitarist Karen Haglof surprised just about everyone – not least herself – by self-releasing her first solo effort (and first Haglof-involved album of any kind in umpteen years) back in 2014. Called Western Holiday, that record, produced as this one was by Steve Almaas whose bass also figures along with CP Roth’s drumming, also surprised by stepping with delightful confidence outside the bounds and expectations those above-mentioned associations might normally betoken. Infusing the urban grit of her NYC surroundings with a palette of wide-open out-west laid-back tones drawn from her many rigorous and freeing vacations riding horse through New Mexico’s wilderness, the result was an album that carried a sharply-honed sweetness, flirtatious here, biting there, ultimately striking a balance between its competing stimuli that prompted us to title our review ‘Chicago Alleys Through Dry Arroyos.’ On Perseverance and Grace, that balancing act continues, though at this point, overall, the charging edge of city life would seem to be gaining the upper hand, even as the album’s initial foray suggests otherwise.

“Cowgirl Clothes,” swinging free like a happy escapee from an early k.d. lang session, light-handed of tempo and sparkling in the high desert sun, could not better summate Haglof’s yearning intention to install herself out on the fringes of the Sonoran frontier. In the end, though, the song sits perched on a series of very significant ‘if’s (“If I were just a little bit bolder…I’d give up all these citified ways“) that foretell, by design or not, the direction the record is heading. “Trouble – Won’t Say More,” with a stippling lead from Mitch Easter, reminds of the Wilco/Bragg Hank Williams romp “Walt Whitman’s Niece” given a good bar band kick. “Monday Under My Belt” tackles the working week grind with the help of Haglof’s funky sass guitar workout. The title track, flinty tough and impressionistic, haunts with an almost mythic force, cut with the guitarist’s slashing rhythmic slide work like some Bonnie Raitt straitjacket blues, which, speaking of, the double-entendred “Tornado (Through the Bottleneck),” besides deftly braiding this modern life’s disjointing pressures with much-needed moments of redemptive calm, posits the intriguing notion of John Raitt’s gifted daughter powered by the avant-rock, punk-tinged background the song’s true author brings.

Nowhere, however, is this record’s lean toward the more metropolitan end of the city-country equation clearer than on the deceptively-named “Sunday Walk,” the pastoral intimation of which, while more or less honored lyrically, gets cleverly undermined by the track’s thudding rock unambiguousness and its frequent trips to the frantic. Follow that with the Joan Jett-worthy “Hair Bite,” all wonderfully petulant snarl and ageless ‘hands off!’ attitude, and the calmer but still-raw hope of “New Heart” and it’s little wonder that, despite being artfully leavened by the likes of “Cobweb” – the gentle, clear-eyed stock-taking of someone, like your correspondent, that’s just recently turned 60 – and the swaying, crepuscular “Seesaw,” Haglof closes Perseverance and Grace with the bass-loping, somewhat dew-kissed “Cool Down,” its many metaphors serving well its message of pulling back the reins a bit but the song might just as well be intended as a soothing exit ticket from an album whose galloping pace has owed more to horsepower than horses.