Written by: Dave Cantrell
One has expectations. Two musicians, a man and a woman, sat within inches of each other armed with little more than vintage instruments – baritone and resophonic guitars, century-old mandolin, lap steel – and a breast full of human emotion, it’s going to be a quiet and possibly too-precious affair, marked by a claustrophobic intimacy and a lot of incidental breathing. In the case of I Line My Days Along Your Weight from Brooklynites Mark Rogers and Mary Byrne, those expectations would be wrong, assuredly wrong. Though indeed hushed in places the record is never anything less than lively, the two-way close-in energy of the pair pinging off each other in myriad folk-fueled trajectories.
Distinguished by Rogers’ deft, sharply sympathetic picking style being met by Byrne’s brimming accompaniment, the album strains luminously at its own restraints, a state apparent from its first track “First Fall Nights.” Efflorescent playing that holds, inside its budding strums and sharp acoustic flurries, Mary’s lingeringly enigmatic lyrics – she writes, it seems, as a poet, intuition-driven and allusive – sung in a bold lucent voice that, like a more forceful Kristin Hersh, nonetheless shows signs of having been wounded, it’s a love song glancingly told and all the stronger for it. Such subtle, dichotomous tension holds throughout.
Therein the elegiac “Hospital” tugs in two directions, its scaffolding a Faheyesque folk lament, its words straying beyond folk-dark and into near-gothic like an Edward Gorey illustration trapped in an ill-lit early 20th C. institution, while the brighter “When Your Elders Are Tall,” springing out of the prickly pluck of mandolin, manages to evoke a sort of festive melancholia, inevitable I suppose when the ghosted limbs of your long-gone ancestors crowd the dining room table, haunting and taunting with their fleeting songs and their acts of corporeal vanishment. “Sirens Call,” while musically keeping very close counsel with its tightly-picked fretwork, keens gently from the looming promise of mortality to the simplest gesture of love that’s our only guard against it, Byrne’s steely-sure voice and a violin-line of sustained electric guitar pulling through it like a thread of light.
Because of the singer’s lyrics, framed as they are by an innateness that weaves together the liminal with the explicit, because the accompaniment never shies away from supporting those words and in fact bolsters them with both grace and a fearless presence, there’s something elusively tactile about the material here, the songs develop shapes and contours such as emerge in the most vivid and realistic dreams, when it’s only waking up that keeps them from being physically touched. Hence the spectral meets the grounded. Hence the shifting mirage-like here/not here character of tracks like “A Racing Heart,” where the voice begins in sheer solitude and picks up acoustic company as the words unfurl, the sound slowly growing from a gently guazy presence to a spinning, dancing-in-the-firelight outro. Such a spirit world-type suspension proves a natural fit for impressionistic glimpses through the refracted lens of childhood, as well, evidenced by the two tracks – “Green Gold Violet” and “A Gracious Heart” – bundled together at the heart of this record, the former as uncluttered and elemental as its title suggests, Rogers’ solo searching, reflective, the latter though more broadly-themed – the singer sitting with an older woman in a prison cell, or so it seems – using as its springboard an extraordinarily intimate and primal recollection of a child’s curiosities and the tastes they bring. Both offer crucial insights into what makes this record tick, what makes it work.
Though one suspects the tracks on “I Line My Weight..” got constructed in a creative manner that amounted to a plan without a plan, a sense of method nonetheless emerges, a pattern. These tracks, every one of them, unspool with a sort cumulative hypnosis, running quiet circles around a dizzied heart and coming away with oblique but sturdy truths, human truths, the kind that stare back at you from the window glass in middle of a sleepless winter night. Sometimes they’re revelatory, sometimes they’re hurtful, but mostly they’re both, and therein the beating, wavering core of existence this record inhabits.
Ushering us out on the album’s most powerful cut – the unflinching yet inviolably steadfast “Sing a Fare Thee Well,” themed along the lines of self-faith against the void, shouldering the true meaning of ‘stand your ground’ with Mark chippering away on a mic’ed mandolin and Mary’s voice scaling its bravest reaches yet – the effect as the final note (the low E on that baritone acoustic?) dies out like an ember is one of a silent breathlessness, having just been witness to something of an epiphany and all around you is vaporous and moonlit.
Acoustic album of the year? Why even ask.[to prove our point, and as an extra added bonus, please enjoy this exclusive stream of I Line My Days Along Your Weight‘s opening track “First Fall Nights”]