Stacey Earle & Mark Stuart
S & M Communion Bread
The latest studio album from Nashville-based Stacey Earle and her husband, Mark Stuart, finds the talented musicians expressing the joy that has always been a hallmark of their work as they expand their folk-y sound and musical versatility in often captivating ways. Earle, the sister of alt-country maverick Steve, met Nashville music scene vet Stuart back in 1991, and the two have been performing together ever since. Though their songwriting styles and voices are very different, the partnership seems to work pretty well.
Mandolin-tinged opener “Up In Annie’s Room” showcases their rough-hewn harmonies to nice effect. Stacey’s voice still falls somewhere between Nanci Griffith and Victoria Williams on most songs here, but it has lost some of the chirpiness that marked her earliest recordings. “Town Square” is a bit too precious even by those standards. But the easygoing blues “Around the Back” and the faux old-timey “Are You Ready?” are mature and confident. The piano-based, gospel-influenced “When I Walk Alone” has the most emotional impact here. And Earle and Stuart bring to mind Gillian Welch and David Rawlings on the set-closing a cappella traditional song “The Old Gospel Ship.”
Stuart’s nifty slide guitar work highlights “Oh, Well.” He also contributes a few songs of his own, including two minutes of guitar picking called “Walkin’ With Travis.” His song about a friend going off to war, “The Old Watch,” is perhaps too straightforward and literal-minded to be really interesting, though.
But my only real complaint is that S&M Communion Bread feels too short. The record simply doesn’t allow us enough time to catch up with Stacey and Mark. It seems like these pros are just getting started as the CD winds down.