Bright Examples

Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion

Ninth Street Opus, 2011

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


There were several things that intrigued me about this one, but the bottom line is that I would most likely give a spin to any album by any artist that includes Gary Louris and Mark Olson of the Jayhawks as guest vocalists. (It also doesn’t hurt if your wife-and-husband duo calls Arlo Guthrie “dad.”)

Sarah Lee Guthrie (granddaughter of Woody, daughter of Arlo) and Johnny Irion make lush, gauzy country-rock in the vein of the oh-so-aptly-named Cowboy Junkies, with (for the most part) Sarah singing lead and Johnny composing and singing harmony.  Leadoff track “Ahead Of Myself” immediately places the listener late at night in a smoky bar with its dreamy country-jazz cadence and sensuous melody.  What’s more surprising to discover is the hint of Motown lurking in the arrangement; Guthrie sounds like she has Diana Ross in the back of her mind as she’s singing, albeit a deliciously languorous Miss Ross.

Sophomore cut “Never Far From My Heart” dials up the emotional intimacy further still, a song of deep longing with a terrific lyric.  “I’d rather have you under the moon than anything under the sun” sings Guthrie before the duo harmonizes on the hooky chorus: “You’re not here, but you’re never far from my heart.” In the wake of this opening pair, one comparison in particular begins to feel inevitable---but after all, any male-female couple working this neck of the musical woods to some extent walks in the footsteps of Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons.  Guthrie and Irion are no exception.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Speed Of Light” ups the tempo and adds tambourine to deliver an airy number with a distinctly Motown rhythm section.  “Seven Sisters”—one of a pair of tunes composed by Guthrie—opens with gospel Hammond organ, adds pedal steel for that country flavor, and then leaves Guthrie to take a lead vocal that’s full of delicate vibrato, so very Emmylou.  “Sisters” also benefits from Louris and Olson’s background vocals on the chorus.

Guthrie and Irion share lead vocals on “Target On Your Heart,” another tune that opens with a tambourine-tinged r&b feel before lifting off into the dreamy substratosphere at the chorus. “Hurry Up & Wait” follows with rich acoustic chording, dual lead vocals and a supple melodic hook.

There’s the occasional odd choice, like opting on the busking-on-the-sidewalk vignette “Dupont Circle” to use a very mechanical sounding drum machine under a rather sing-songy little folk tune. (Really?) And then there are those subtle touches that work, like the delicate acoustic melody, accordion and sleigh bells shimmering gently under Guthrie’s ethereal vocals on the subsequent “Butterflies,” her other composition here.

For the most part, though, Guthrie, Irion, co-producer/guitarist Andy Cabic and co-producer/mixer Thom Monaghan (Train) opt to keep the arrangements simple and elegant, relatively unadorned and with emphasis placed on the two voices up front; everything else is there simply to complement the vocals.

“First Snow” is co-written by Louris—who also produced the duo’s previous 2005 album Exploration—and reminds again of why he and Olson happily joined this effort. After all, Bright Examples sounds like nothing quite so much as a mash-up of Cowboy Junkies with Tomorrow The Green Grass-era Jayhawks, overflowing with seemingly effortless, unhurried melodies.

Toward the end, “Company I’m Keepin” offers a very pretty piano ballad where Guthrie gives a slightly jazzy interpretation to the vocal—or maybe it’s just the way she’s miked, with her delicate voice fully exposed front and center. The closing title track finds Irion taking his only lead vocal and doing his very best slow-and-dreamy Neil Young impression—it’s a good one.

Bright Examples delivers 12 tracks of painterly, organic country-rock with complementary male-female harmonies, showcasing the genuine vulnerability of Guthrie’s trembly vibrato and the subtle magic of these two voices intertwining and melting together. This is not an album that’s going to set your pulse racing; it’s more like a slow, smooth cocktail on a warm summer evening, lulling you into a state of knowing contentment.  And that’s a pretty pleasant place to be.

Rating: B+

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© 2011 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Ninth Street Opus, and is used for informational purposes only.