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Sharron Kraus - The Woody Nightshade

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Artist: Sharron Kraus

Album: The Woody Nightshade

Label: Strange Attractors Audio House

Review date: Nov. 1, 2010

The first thing to notice on the page about the woody nightshade at Brandeis University’s guide to medicinal plants of the northeast is the warning, “All parts of this plant are poisonous.” But if you carry on, you’ll find that despite its toxicity it contains compounds used to treat skin disease, gout, respiratory ailments, and tumors, and also that it looks rather fetching when its flowers bloom. The first thing to hit you about The Woody Nightshade is how different it sounds from Sharron Kraus’s last album, The Fox’s Wedding. She’s shelved its lilting fiddles and cantering banjos, and arrayed her songs instead in layers of acoustic guitars and female voices that are undergirded by steady bass drumbeats and embroidered with feedback and electronics. It still sounds, broadly speaking, like folk music, but of a more introspective and contemporary strain, one that is focused on affairs of the heart. In other words, it’s a singer-songwriter album.

The woody nightshade is Kraus’ metaphor for love. It’s pretty in bloom and it can make you sick, but it can also cure what ails you. As befits an artist who has a soft spot for old England’s pagan soul, she describes love in terms of withering and renewal that echo her description of the actual seasons on another album, Right Wantonly A-Mumming. And just as you can’t keep summer past its time no matter how much you like the sun on your arms, it’s impossible to make love stay around when the time comes for it to go. Kraus’ perspective on attachment is decidedly anti-possessive; if you enjoy it, it might stick it around, but if you try to hang onto it, it’ll surely leave. Nightshade’s 10 songs unpack desire and affection and come up with the notion that disappointment is every bit worth savoring as joy because a romantic betrayal might acquaint you with real (not necessarily romantic) love. So while this record sounds pensive and lingers on experiences of loss, it’s not depressing.

The arrangements on The Woody Nightshade maintain Kraus’ practice of not making the same record over and over. They work mainly to frame her clear, tremulous voice, but they’re rich in details worth attending if you choose, like the swirl of voices that fly around her lead on “Evergreen Sisters” or the way the drums and bouzouki elaborate upon her melody on “Story.” The one thing that doesn’t work is the choice to push the squeak of fingers sliding upon guitar strings to the front of the mix. Maybe it is, like the behavior of her lover, one of the things that Kraus can’t control and therefore tries embrace, but it’s still a bit annoying.

By Bill Meyer

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