Seasons on Earth finds a middle ground between the rococo production of Meg Baird’s (ex?)-band Espers and the plain as dirt simplicity of her solo debut, Dear Companion. This is a very good thing. Espers’ songs could get lost in the sounds, and while Dear Companion‘s foregrounding of song and voice has an appealing purity, it also has a certain enforced good-for-you-ness, like seedy bread with no butter. Seasons on Earth, on the other, erects no stumbling blocks to keep you from appreciating its virtues. The arrangements are spare, but full enough to make this a record you can play even if you don’t feel like scrutinizing the words; but if you want to listen, they’re not so busy as to get in the way. And Baird’s come up with an immediate set of melodies, ones strong enough to hold up an abstract lyric, but also supple enough to twist like ivy around a big and many boughed tree.
This winding quality is especially pronounced whenever Baird lets loose pedal steel guitarist Marc Orleans (of Eleven Twenty-Nine and D. Charles Speer & The Helix). Rumor has it that Orleans has been woodshedding on the instrument all day, every day whenever he’s off the road, and his accompaniment here supports that supposition; his playing is controlled but lyrical, never stumbling, always in position on Baird’s wing. Her singing, equally indebted to the American folk tradition and first-generation British folk-rockers, has an airborne quality that is partly due to the way her voice banks and wheels over fluently fingerpicked guitars, but also because of the spaces between her overdubbed high notes.
Baird only wrote two songs on Dear Companion; that’s how many covers she sings on this record. Her originals are elusive, hinting at events but never quite spelling out the action. “Stars Climb Up the Vine” is probably about a missed opportunity, “Stream” about figuring out which parts of one’s self last when things change. Both benefit from letting a couple of guest guitarists tangle around her words. The covers sit in the center of the record, and their comparative directness is a tonic. There’s no mistaking the theme of the Mark-Almond Band’s “Friends”; with time, your pals will drift away, and there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s not a lot of heft to the words of “Beatles and the Stones,” which was a middling chart hit for U.K. rockers House Of Love 21 years ago, but it’s as pretty as a magnified snowflake.
That’s just one more example of the balance Baird strikes throughout Seasons on Earth. By keeping everything in proportion, she’s made the most easily approached record of her career.