ALBUM REVIEW – Fear Of Falling Stars

ALBUM REVIEW – Fear Of Falling Stars

Fear Of Falling Stars is the seventh album by the Oregon string band Kristen Grainger & True North, who have already garnered critical acclaim, not to mention comparisons to Alison Krauss & Union Station. The band features Kristen alongside multi-instrumentalist husband Dan Wetzel, mandolin, octave mandolin, and fiddle player Martin Stevens and Josh Adkins on upright bass.

It throws you right into the emotional deep end from the start, opening with the ballad, Don’t Take Me Back, that puts a ‘the-devil-you-know-isn’t-better’ spin on the familiar break-up scenario with Grainger singing “Don’t believe a word I say/When I’ll say anything/Don’t take me back/Don’t take me on/Stare me down, tell me to go and stay gone”.

A similar approach informs deceptively musically jaunty Go-Nowhere Town, the narrator counting the cost of divorce (“Not much of a settlement/You don’t feel quite free/You got lawyers’ fees, you got two bad knees”) and forced to return home “Down a one-way street to the corner of redemption and chagrin” with head hung low, a sign of defeat as opposed to a haven of comfort (“Home is where they know when you don’t win or place or show up where the winners go with horns to blow”) where “You gotta tell your old man/You got no future plan/You gotta tell your mom/To leave the porch light on/Post a plausible sham on instasnapchatgram”.

The despair and pessimism continue with the moody folksy mandolin-picked, fiddle-haunted Extraordinary Grace (“All the birds and all the bees, the girls who fly the high trapeze tumble to the ground without a net/All of our advanced degrees and all our sweet discoveries could save us but they haven’t saved us yet”) where “All the moms and all the pops convenience stores, auto shops cannot fix the promises we’ve broken/All impassioned pleas to Jesus, all the phony press releases  falling short of truths we’ve never spoken” and life just a case of  “killing time, until time returns the favor”.

Wetzel takes over for a bluegrassy bubbling mandola and four-part harmonies cover of Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien’s Memories and Moments, another song of shattered hopes and dreams. And to compound that, Grainger returns for another break-up number, the urgent bluegrass track Across the Moutain (“I woke up this morning/In the pearly light of dawn/A note pinned to your pillow/Told me you were gone/Said you love another/Her heart you hoped to win/And I should get to moving out/Because she was moving in”), our wronged narrator torching the place on the way out.

Things mercifully take a turn for the sunnier as Stevens and Adkins harmonise with Wetzel on his waltzing love song to his wife, The Little Things, his singing somehow making lines like “It’s your small hand in mine while we’re walking alone/It’s making dinner together in our own cozy home/It’s picking out movies and walking the pup/It’s a sweet country drive while the sun gives it up” not sound like schmaltz. Then Grainger returns the compliment with the folksy mandolin strum of The Avalanche, where her man eclipses the wonder of nature and the stars as she sings, “But of all the beauty I have seen/Wide awake or in my dreams/And of all the beauty I have known/In the world and on my own…Nothing moves me like you do”.

They take time out from being loved-up with their first instrumental in 19 years; the acoustic bluegrass meets jazz loose improvisation of the Pent Up as the players weave in, around and off each other. And from jazz it shifts to string band ragtime and swing for Wetzel’s What Might Have Been, a thankfully not too much of a downer about the lovesick narrator not having the courage to confess his feelings (“Was a time I set my mind to talk to you/When I saw you on the street/Thought I’d mustered up the nerve to see it through/Could not convince my feet/But even if I did, I would surely fall apart/Caught up in hiding this foolish heart”).

It ends with Stop Me If I Told You This Before, just circling fingerpicked guitar accompanying Grainger on a poetic lyric of loss and loneliness (“Afternoons,  I take an hour/To walk among the living things/Some with whiskers, some with wings/Some with wedding rings… Hummingbirds to summer blooms/Distant songs in empty rooms/Letters sent with postage due/All return to me but you/Cherry blossom petals fall/On the cemetery wall/I could not catch them all”) born from the personal story of her mother who found herself isolated in the Covid lockdowns.

Not perhaps always thematically the most uplifting of albums, but even in the darkest moments, whether in the music or the vocals, there’s a light somewhere on the horizon, bringing you back to listen again and again. Catch this falling star and put it in your pocket.

Mike Davies

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