Rachel Harrington, on stage, has always seemed to be an artist whose work is affected by the experiences of her life, and particularly her deeply religious upbringing in the western state of Oregon. But until now that hasn’t been so reflected in the songs she records. That changes in her new album, a study of loss centred on the long-gone world of the Old West. It’s an album that doesn’t make an immediate impact, but with repeated listening, it proves to be well-conceived and with a lot to say.
The title Celilo Falls refers to a traditional Native American fishing area on the Columbia River on the border of Oregon and Washington. In the 1950s, the building of dams for hydroelectric power led to the creation of an artificial lake that submerged the falls and also flooded a nearby native village. The waterfalls remain intact, but are completely hidden beneath the water.
Harrington takes the falls as a metaphor for a lost world, the American West, described in the song “Let Me Sleep in your Arms Tonight” as an area where the western plains and the fallen stars / Meet under the open sky … Where the wildflowers bloom and the mustangs roam.
Harrington has a flawless voice, as she proves in “Pretty Saro”, sung entirely without accompaniment. The song is a traditional one, but Harrington rewrote it to fit her needs, while retaining the original melody and title.
“Bury Me Close” is a beautiful, short song about Harrington’s Swedish immigrant grandfather, struggling with the loss of his wife of 50 years. Harrington’s other grandfather, also considering the inevitable end to life, is credited for the notion that led to the Gospel song “He Started Building My Mansion in Heaven Today”.
The notion of loss also extends to a couple of breakup songs, including “Goodbye Amsterdam”, where travels through Europe force the singer to deal with separation in all the places that they previously visited together. It’s a pleasant song with a singalong chorus, but does require – for a British audience – a small shift of sensibility that allows one to pronounce “Birmingham” to rhyme with “Amsterdam”.
Rachel Harrington’s voice is extraordinary, her songwriting consistently strong. If she is not yet in the top ranks of singer-songwriters, it’s maybe a reflection of the fact that she somehow still fails to dazzle. This album will not change that, but it is a step in the right direction.
Release date: November 22