The Upshot: About-faced, fresh vocal talent from a sweet, 24-year old Virginian, injecting her brand of country/olde-tyme music with more old soul than the category’s had for eons, with a suitable assist from Teddy Thompson.
BY ERIC THOM
The first thing that hits you upon hearing Dori Freeman sing is the distinctive old-school quality of her voice. Breathtakingly beautiful and thoroughly innocent-sounding, you’d swear it belonged to a ghost from the past – certainly nothing circa 2016. As many singer-songwriters as there are out there vying for a toe-hold, this is a rare sound, indeed. Think the distinctive purity of Iris DeMent; that faraway, forever sadness of Emmylou Harris; the tortured, tormented heartache of Shelby Lynne; the incurable melancholy that is Gillian Welch. Hers is the near-desolate sound of a terminal loner – capable of laying pain and suffering right out on the table, with or without accompaniment (as she does on the finger-snapping, a capella “Ain’t Nobody”). Devoid of hope, with no expectations of compassion, her haunting, oft-forlorn-sounding vocals break the skin, piercing more deeply than is comfortable – yet, remains as irresistible as flame to a moth. Each stinging wound is generously cauterized by equal measures of an old-school sweetness and tenderness that’s sorely missed in today’s world. Heartache incarnate, she’s a siren for the disenfranchised and shares that rare trait of real country singers who go beyond simply having the voice – to definitely owning it. Beginning with the crystalline “You Say”, featuring little more than voice, acoustic guitar and Jeff Hill’s acoustic bass, you’re immediately struck by Freeman’s bell-clear tone that, although it projects equal parts longing and unsatiated desire, communicates absolute strength. Having appealed (via Facebook) to one of her favorite singers to produce her debut, it’s the complementary combination of Freeman’s vocals in tandem with Teddy Thompson’s on “Where I Stood” that lift this disc to its loftiest heights (there are three such duets on this release). With the only accompaniment being acoustic guitar, their two voices dovetail in blissful proportions – broken relationships have never sounded so good. Yet Thompson proves a wise choice in the producer’s chair, careful to keep the spotlight on Freeman’s gifts rather than water them down. He also experiments with varying levels of sophisticated production technique across these ten tracks, demonstrating his new find’s abilities in both stripped down and lushly accompanied affairs. Case in point, “Go On Lovin’” harkens back to a time when country was slick but not overly polished, with a grand production befitting Tammy Wynette. Erik Deutsch adds true country piano to Jon Graboff’s steel guitar as Alex Hargreaves adds fiddle, atop Hill’s bass and Rob Walborne’s drums. Freeman’s voice rises to the occasion, lending its emotion-charged, near-desolate sense while revealing her non-too-subtle grasp of profound depth and range. Yesteryear’s country radio gets an upbeat treatment with the brilliant “Tell me”, which seems Thompson’s best attempt at targeting his protégé to the commercial gods, or what’s left of them. Soothing strings and perky arpeggios adorn his heroine, whose own perky warble and built-in twang help make this one of the album’s strongest tracks. A more traditional pop detour is realized with “Fine Fine Fine” with its strong hooks (recalling 70s-era Nick Lowe), Graboff’s crisp, ringing guitar and the addition of Thompson on acoustic guitar and background vocals. Gentle, muted percussion greets the delicious “Any Wonder” as Freeman and full-band tackle a more acoustic approach featuring a rich, country blues assault on broken hearts, featuring Walborne’s sturdy backbeat with Thompson adding guitar and vocals. The most singular “Dori Freeman track” on this release is, without doubt, the bravely delivered, finger-snapping, “Ain’t Nobody”. Her desolate-sounding vocal, alone, registers a mountaintop of hell and hardship that touches on oppression of all kinds, from impossibly cruel situations to abuse by evil power brokers of all stripes, sounding fully burdened with the weight of the entire world on her capable, sturdy shoulders. A strongly ‘50’s-flavored “Lullabye” conjures capri pants, cardigan sweaters and the back seats of convertibles while tremelo’d guitar and lush piano accompany Freeman’s focused vocal, flexing the strength of her upper register, adding just the right amount of country. Deutsch’s piano and Graboff’s guitar gently spar during a too-short instrumental that simply begs more. “A Song for Paul” owns the distinction of serving up Freeman and Thompson’s two voices in an enchanting serenade, underlining the phenomenal power of two voices destined to be singing together, as the gentle touch of acoustic guitar (Freeman) and piano (Thompson) provide subtle contrast. The ultimate put-down is found with Freeman’s tale of broken love, “Still A Child”, featuring outstanding piano from Deutsch, rich bass from Hill and Alex Hargreaves’ old-time fiddle as Freeman opens her diary on yet another example of man’s inability to act their age in affairs of the heart. I’m not sure where she buried him, but I’m sure he’s deep.
Dori Freeman, for all her 24 years, has managed to stop time with this strong release. Although she sounds of another place and time, her relevance and currency is underlined by her ability to connect emotionally in today’s world. She’s a rare beauty, no matter the angle and a fiercely proud representative of her steadfast Galax, Virginia roots. Her potent, honest brew is instantly classic fare that can’t be ignored or forgotten.