A soft prayer: a review of Erin Durant’s “Islands”

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Rating: 7.1

If have a twinkle in your eye and a penchant for soft chords and low-key arrangements, don’t despair. Even as technology flourishes and ensures the ubiquitous presence of electronic sound and media in our culture, and as our synthesizers, audio workstations, and applications make anything possible in the realm of music, there still remains a place for singer songwriters with acoustic instruments and a love for the past.

More and more artists these days have difficulty resisting adding layer and layer of multitracking and electronic complexity to their music. Even the folk revivalists eventually succumb, lending truth to that old saying: “anything that can happen will happen.” The crisis of our musical era is not one of scarcity, it is one of abundance, of frivolous addition and gloss layered onto a song until it loses all character.

Erin Durant is one of those artists that seems that challenges these notions. Since electronic music now looms over us, a commitment to simplicity takes intention and discipline, traits that Durant overflows with. To understand more about her newest album “Islands” and how this commitment informs her life and music, one only has to take a closer look at her past.

A few years ago, The New York Times profiled Erin Durant. The story concentrated on her peculiar insistence in towing around her upright piano to gigs around the city. Though on the surface it might seem impracticable to move around an acoustic Tom Thumb piano for each show in a dense and busy city, the deeper reasons for doing this illustrates a growing divide in music. Durant so highly values the sound and feel of a real piano that she refuses to cart around a keyboard to her gigs.

The commitment to acoustic piano serves as an analogue to Durant’s music, which is equal parts emotionally warm, enveloping, and pastoral. Picturing her singing these songs as they play through my speakers, I find it hard to imagine her sitting in front of an electric keyboard. It just wouldn’t be right.

Durant’s new album “Islands” is a few steps up from the lo-fi hiss of “Blueberry Mountain,” Durant’s debut album back in 2016. The sound has been upgraded from the bedroom days with dashes of dulcimer, woodwinds, and brass, all tasteful and restrained in order to complement the soft tumbling introspection of Durant’s songs.

The title track from “Islands” has the feel of an old friend crooning out a song from a parlor piano in the corner of your house. The way it gently falls into a lazy waltz in the chorus suggests cheeriness in the face of pain: “The islands are a calling / the islands are a calling / I’m flying in / drinking champagne”. The next verse changes our thinking about these “islands”, though: “So I’m drinking margaritas on a Saturday night / You are looking real fine and you’re feeling alright / But my world came crashing down just as I got off the plane / When a phone call came in and this is what they said.” The caller tells Durant she has to go home. What this refers to is never clear, though by song’s end the “islands” feel like an isolation, one suggested by a friend that wanted to distance themselves from Durant.

“We are locked into the grooves” Durant remarks on “Highway Blue.” For a traditionalist like herself, this seemingly could mean her music, which draws heavily on traditional song structures and melody, or be a bigger metaphor for the way the grooves of a vinyl record mimic the way we fall into habitual patterns, steady jobs, and life paths. Without the grooves, though, we wouldn’t be able to make beautiful music or accomplish anything that takes discipline and practice. This is Durant moving around her Tom Thumb piano. It is commitment in practice

Durant’s commitment to tradition, though, has both a positive and negative effect on her songs. The weaknesses in Durant’s music inevitably show up on this album, such as on songs like “Highway Blue,” which can’t help but veer toward being a cutesy reproduction of the country-folk piano catalog. There’s nothing overtly bad about “Highway Blue,” but there’s also nothing exceptional either, a feeling which is pretty consistent across the album. It’s moments like these when Durant could use a little more life in her piano playing, which tends towards banality rather than originality and flair. 

The accompanying instrumentation on the album is nice throughout, painting Durant’s splendid voice with pastel, sunlit backgrounds of guitar, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and occasionally, synth. “Rising Sun” feels exactly like the scene it’s title describes, and feels as drenched in splashes of burnt orange, withering violet, and quivering cerulean blue as the title suggests. Clear and serene like the breaking of a new day, it breaks out of a spacey ambience with the movement of a guitar and, eventually, Durant’s voice: “Hello wind, haven’t seen you in years / Have you been out on the plains with the others? / I’ve been here, learning some rituals / Like how to truly love another.”

Much of Durant’s music rests on the strength of her voice. Her warm delivery and serene, quivering vibrato perfectly complement these arrangements, and when her voice rises into that perfect word, like “river,” you can feel the years of country/folk music coursing through her veins. “I’m so tired and a little drunk / Just want you to hold me, ‘til my time is up” she sings, betraying that loneliness that is both the inheritance of the folk music tradition and a tragic reality of our modern world.

In that way Durant represents our era as much as singers like Emmylou Harris represented hers. Everyone now seems pretty aware of how technology and lightning fast communication have paradoxically isolated people, and Durant’s music feels like a result of that isolation. Her music, even when accompanied by other musicians, seems to exist in a web of loneliness, her lyrics strung out on ribbons of daydreams or lonely moments during the day. 

“Good Ol Night” finds a bouncier rhythm, and is one of the few songs you could dance to on “Islands.” The song’s insistently upbeat drums and muted trumpet accompaniment would sound at home in some retro dance hall or in a Jimmy Buffett song before he went mainstream. The fun and energy of the arrangement stands in contrast to the evocative lyrics, which draws us through scenes chronicling the dissolution of one of Durant’s relationships, which lingers on even she is observes that “sleeping in the car for the night is the way I pleaded,” or finds that she was making her best play with the cards she had, just like a gambler would. 

Through all this memory and loneliness, Durant’s music finds repose in the kind of scene that the New York Times paints her in right at the end of their article:

“Ms. Durant glanced up and out the window at the street and the moonless night and paused for a moment. Then she set her gaze at the keys and continued to play.”

It’s easy to imagine Durant there, alone even at the concert where she is performing, communing with her Tom Thumb piano. Even more fantastically, I see a blue fog swirling around her, suggesting that this is a dream sequence or a scene out of an old-fashioned movie. Such is the feeling of making traditional music in an electronic, isolated world, a reality that Durant seems very aware of.

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