Review: Nancy Beaudette, South Branch Road
Nancy Beaudette, South Branch Road
Although Nancy Beaudette is not a huge name in the folk-rock world, the Canadian singer/songwriter has been performing for many years. South Branch Road, in fact, is her eighth album, and this likable 2015 release shows her to have a good-natured, pastoral style that draws on direct or indirect influences such as Joni Mitchell (a fellow Canadian) and Janis Ian. One hears a lot of Mitchell influence in Beaudette’s performances, although that influence comes through in her vocal style more than her lyrics. Mitchell’s lyrics can be cryptic at times, whereas on “Shoot to Score (The Hockey Song),” “End of the Line,” “Something Tells Me” or “Company of Stones,” Beaudette favors lyrics that are very straight-forward and accessible. Beaudette, who grew up near the town of Cornwall in the Canadian province of Ontario, paints an appealing, earnest picture of small town life on tracks like “’Til the Tomatoes Ripen,” “End of the Line” and the title song. She gives the impression that she is drawing on her own personal experiences, which makes the performances believable and convincing. Beaudette’s musical strength obviously lies in the fact that she is a storyteller, and storytelling is what she does effectively on “’Til the Tomatoes Ripen,” “Shoot to Score (The Hockey Song),” “Ride On” and other parts of this album.
South Branch Road has a very warm sound: Beaudette’s vocals are warm, the melodies and harmonies are warm, the production and engineering are warm. Beaudette’s earthy approach calls for an organic production style, and when “Starlight,” “Can’t Hold Back” or “You Got It Goin’ On” is playing, one hears an album that is well-produced but not overproduced.
Although mainly a folk-rock album, there are times when South Branch Road detours a bit into country-rock territory: most notably, “Shoot to Score (The Hockey Song)” and “Starlight.” Both of those songs would have worked on an album by Mary Chapin Carpenter or Tricia Yearwood, although the production lacks the slickness that one typically finds in Nashville country-rock these days. And that country-rock influence in what is primarily a folk-rock environment makes perfect sense in light of the relationship between country and North American folk. There are many differences between the folk scene and the modern country market: folk-rock singers (from Joan Baez to Bob Dylan to Natalie Merchant to Ani DiFranco to Tracey Chapman) have a long history of promoting liberal/progressive causes, while country has had its share of right-wing lyrics in recent decades. Yet folk-rock and country-rock, despite their musical and lyrical differences, have common roots (both were greatly influenced by the folk traditions that immigrants brought to North America from the British Isles), and they often intersect. Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard covers are not uncommon in folk venues; country-rockers will perform some Bob Dylan and Neil Young songs (often the less political ones). So when Beaudette incorporates some country-rock influence on parts of this album, it does not feel the least bit out of place.
Although Beaudette is the type of artist who is likely to be compared to Mitchell, Baez or Judy Collins, the intonation in her voice sometimes brings to mind someone whose name seldom appears in reviews of folk-rock albums: Heart’s Ann Wilson. Given that Wilson has mostly made her mark in hard rock and arena rock, she is an unlikely comparison on an album like South Branch Road. But those who are familiar with Heart’s 1970s albums such as Dreamboat Annie, Little Queen and Dog and Butterfly know that some of their early recordings had a definite folk-rock outlook (songs like “Soul of the Sea,” “Dream of the Archer” and Dreamboat Annie’s title track). And bearing that in mind, it makes sense that, directly or indirectly, Beaudette could be influenced by Wilson at the same time she is being influenced by Mitchell and Baez. Besides, this is modern folk-rock, not traditional folk from the 1940s. Singer/songwriters in today’s folk scene were raised on rock & roll.
South Branch Road is an enjoyable listen, demonstrating that Beaudette is deserving of a wider audience.
Review by Alex Henderson
3.5 stars out of 5