Following Heather Woods Broderick
I first encountered Heather Woods Broderick on the Broderick and Broderick 10″ EP in 2013. When I heard her harmonize with herself on the second verse of “Let Me Love You for Free” — accompanied by her brother, Peter, and their father — I immediately became a fan.
I remain so.
Broderick’s From the Ground, released in 2009, is one of my all-time favorite albums. Years after I first heard it, it still has that increasingly rare quality of sounding as though it could have been released yesterday, or 10 years ago, or in the seventies. It’s introspective. It’s simultaneously knowing and naive. It’s also melancholy, exultant, sad, and celebratory. And timeless. And a whole lot more.
And a whole lot more people need to hear it.
Broderick possesses one of music’s most beautifully plaintive and emotive voices. Yet she remains somewhat obscure, or, at least, inexplicably ignored. She’s known and admired for some for her work with Sharon Van Etten, for whom her contributions are equal parts low-key and essential.
Heather Woods Broderick, Invitation
That said, what’s the story with the third solo album from Heather Woods Broderick, Invitation, released in April of this year?
Those looking for the minimalist art-folk of From The Ground will find this new album to be more fleshed out — in terms of instrumentation, arrangements, and lyrics.
While Ground‘s atmospheres and words seemed sprung from nature, Invitation‘s evocations rise from emotions and relationships. The new album also packs a lot more into the arrangements. This density sometimes works. Sometimes it… well, pushes the dense into the red.
What hasn’t changed? Broderick’s voice is still as ghostly as it is winsome. If you appreciate Lisa Germano’s breathy delivery, Heather’s airy, pitch-perfect coo will draw you in. She remains precious, or, at least, twee, at times. It all seems to work, somehow.
“A Stilling Wind” leads off the album, and for good reason — it’s the strongest, catchiest song. After a gentle ripple of watery chords, Broderick’s acoustic guitar spins the first strands of a melody, then her voice takes the stage, however tentatively. Verse by verse, the instrumentation becomes more complex as Danny Bensi’s strings bob and weave, and the momentum builds as the lyrics relate more and more uncertainty.
There’s little in the way of a bridge or chorus — but the song is about as perfect as anything I’ve heard this year.
“I Try”, the next track, is also among the best songs on the album; its verse structure is remarkable. It has a This Mortal Coil vibe to it. It’s not just the welling waves of reverb. The layered orchestration and overall mood comes across as a lost track from the It’ll End In Tears sessions.
The video resembles something you’d see during woozy late-night viewing of VH1 fifteen or twenty years ago. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Nightcrawler” is a loping, beautiful ballad. The piano dampens into another set of blurry chords during the coda. I wonder if it’s meant to bookend the intro of “A Stilling Wind” to set us up for the rest of the album. Were the first three songs a suite, of sorts?
No matter. I’m preparing to surrender. I even have a white flag around here, somewhere.
Then the overwrought, over-orchestrated refrain of “Where I Lay” lays the bombast on far too heavily. It sounds like something Kate Bush axed from side two of Hounds of Love for being a tad too, I dunno… histrionic? When the song’s semi-relentless finale abruptly cuts off, the feeling is one of relief.
“These Green Valleys”, too, features an extended crescendo during the last half of the song that sounds blown out — there’s too much in the mix, brought down by low and low-mid frequencies, and what could have been a great song is bogged down in near-muck. At times there’s considerable break-up due to spectrum-pinning overmodulation, especially on the vinyl. I’m not sure if this is in the mix, or in the mastering; the 24/48 Bandcamp FLAC sounds as blown-out as the LP.
“Quicksand” has the potential to be amazing — it still is, mind you, but it’s dragged down, again, by a mix that’s too thick.
Let’s accentuate some positive, then.
“Slow Dazzle” is another minimal, piano-based ode. Is it a not-so-sly reference to the bonkers John Cale album from 1975? Or not? No matter; it’s an absolutely lovely torch song, no less gorgeous in its ambiguity.
“My Sunny One” is buried towards the mid-end of the CD, but is arguably the album’s highlight. It’s a willowy, gorgeous waltz. The backing track could easily have made it onto Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine — high praise, and more than worthy.
The album’s closer — the title track — is over far too soon. It showcases Heather’s vocal range to delightful effect. If you’re listening, Heather, we could use more of this (I’ll spare the reader another Kate Bush comparison. But still)!
How does Invitation compare to Broderick’s first two albums? It’s definitely more wordy. Occasionally, the poetry comes across as being shoehorned into the music. More often, the lyrics feel effortless. The album is one-paced (read: tempos are uniformly slow to mid-tempo), but one doesn’t buy a Heather Woods Broderick album for rhythmic dynamics, now does one?
Heather Woods Broderick has delivered to us her third full-length work, and I get the feeling it’s exactly the album she wanted to make — devoid of the usual folk-rock trappings or the accepted claptrap that often drags down lesser efforts of the singer-songwriter genre.
That alone should make this latest from Heather Woods Broderick, Invitation, worth your time. It’s a great album. And I have the feeling Heather’s next one will be even greater. She hasn’t reached the top of her game.
- Western Vinyl (label)
- Heather Woods Broderick on Discogs
The bulk of this review was written at Benton Hot Springs on a dusty, 90-degree day earlier this summer while wearing headphones and watching the lawn sprinklers (somebody’s got to do it). This is dedicated to BHS and its caretakers.
About the Author
Paul Ashby has, gratefully, retired from the music business but still can’t resist sniping from the sidelines from time to time.
He lives in Contra Costa County, California, with his partner Kate, and their cats, Wafflehead and Timmy. He is approaching the tipping point where he enjoys gardening and landscaping more than music.
We’ll see how that pans out.
You can find Paul regularly on his own site, Anything But MP3.