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Josephine Foster - Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You

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Artist: Josephine Foster

Album: Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You

Label: Locust

Review date: May. 20, 2005

Prior to recording in Born Heller and The Children’s Hour, Josephine Foster dropped out of opera school, and this biographical detail is often bandied about as a means for getting perspective on the spare, willowy folk music that she’s made since. The implications are obvious – classically trained, she knows something about vocal agility and pitch control; a dropout, she’s temperamentally better suited to forms alien to Mozart and Verdi. But from here the assumptions begin to break down, in part because Foster’s music is so different from that of other performers known for bringing formal rigor to vernacular styles. Where Joan Baez, Jean Ritchie, and other vocalists approach their material with a desire to clarify and interpret, Foster resists this impulse. Her prickly, rarefied warble does nearly the opposite of what we expect such voices to do – it embodies folk’s peculiarities rather than polishing them away.

Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You is the first solo venture for the Chicagoan, and it comes on the heels of All The Leaves Are Gone, her rollicking collaboration with Brian Goodman and Rusty Peterson. Some faulted that record for an excess of guitar wankery, but Goodman’s zeal is crucial to the decentralized push-and-pull that elevates Foster’s vocal performance. She ditches the rock electricity on Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You while smartly retaining the same keen compositional imbalance and bristling instrumental tension. Accompanying herself with all manner of (literal) bells and whistles, as well as guitar, harp, sitar, tambourine, ukulele, and homemade percussion, Foster slides her voice around tinny irregular plucks, minor key-clawing, trembling flute notes, and wooden clicks and clacks. On gems like the austere deathbed ballad “Stones Throw From Heaven,” she even multi-tracks harmony accompaniment, playing Hazel Dickens to her own Alice Gerrard.

There’s a disconcerting stillness to much of Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You, a privileging of inertia that succumbs here and there to the swarm of strings, but returns always to a resting state. This is a key difference between Foster and someone like Devendra Banhart, with whom her voice shares a certain affinity. Where Banhart seems perpetually on the hunt for neat melodic figures, locked grooves to adorn with surreal images, Foster resists order. Her voice flickers like pale flame around lyrics you’d expect to find in the Child Ballads ("I fell down among the splinters / Of a rose of the tree / My true lover planted thee"), constantly wandering and rarely returning twice over the same ground.

On “Crackerjack Fool” – one of the album’s highlights – Foster borrows lines from a classic lullabye (Hush little baby don’t say a word / Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird) and spins them at a feverish, oblong tilt over dense, dizzying guitar clawing. As she throws her soprano into the croaking call of a crow, the song flaps its black wings and turns evil. Foster’s vocals are graceful and sedate on the track that follows (“The Way is Sweetly Mown”), but she ripples the placid surface with freefalling harp notes and interjections of bells and chimes. Her formal illogic is so strange and convincing that when she sticks to familiar trappings (the bluesy “Good News” and the neat chord changes of “Trees Lay By”), it distances her from her most appealing quality – that unease that’s there in all of the great folk songs, and has been for centuries.

By Nathan Hogan

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