Kari Sickenberger – Settle Down

January 01, 1970





Some things are just inevitable. Although beloved western
North Carolina combo Polecat Creek is still very much extant – formed by the
sweetly-harmonizing duo of Kari Sickenberger and Laurelyn Dossett over a decade
ago and featuring some of the region’s top musical talent, the group’s latest
record is Ordinary Seasons – Sickenberger
eventually felt the solo muse move in her, hence the album at hand, comprising 13
Sickenberger originals. Those familiar with the mother ship’s old-time sound
will note similarities, of course (and Dossett turns up on four tracks, while
Polecat fiddler Natalya Weinstein’s on seven of ‘em), and Sickenberger the solo
artist will draw her core audience from the Polecat crowd.


But Settle Down is
still a more wide-ranging affair, a country-tilting critter steeped in pedal
steel, featuring sleek (but not “glossy”) arrangements with drums and electric
bass frequently prominent, and powered by Sickenberger’s distinctive, piercing voice
that slips so easily from contralto to croon you’ll be checking the CD credits
just to make sure this isn’t a long-lost trove of Patsy Cline outtakes.
Highlights are many: “Falling Out” (as in, “I believe I’m falling out of love), sassy and upbeat but with an
undercurrent of sadness, just like Hank Sr. would’ve done it; countrypolitan
weeper “Cry Over You” (George Jones or Willie Nelson could’ve written this for
Patsy); “Climber of Mountains,” alight with rippling mandolin, fiddle and
guitar, with distinctive Gillian Welch/American Primitive overtones.


To these ears the part that’ll leave you picking your jaw up
from the floor arrives middisc. “No Strong Arms (Lament)” starts out as an
up-on-the-ridge a capella by
Sickenberger, who’s then joined by Alice Gerrard on counterpoint harmony vocal
while fiddle, banjo and hand drum provide an antebellum backdrop worthy of a
Ken Burns documentary – Sickenberger’s liner notes call it “a song of sorrow
and a song of freedom,” and it’s about the emptiness a woman feels in the wake
of a broken heart, or perhaps an even deeper, more primal loss. Then, cueing up
immediately after is “No Strong Arms (Plea),” billed as “an homage to women and
girls,” and though obviously linked spiritually to the previous track, it’s by
contrast not as brittle or rough-hewn, with a luminous Cowboy Junkies vibe
(think “Misguided Angel,” if it had been reworked for Caution Horses) wrought by mandolin, pedal steel, spectral electric
guitar and a male harmony vocal. Sings Sickenberger, with determination, “Don’t
want nobody now to call my own/ No strong arms in the dark/ Father, you say
it’s time for leaving home/ You give my hand, can’t give my heart…” and as this
song unfolds, one learns about dreams both dreamt and shattered, about sorrows
and joys, and about finding one’s way through life no matter how stacked the
deck may seem. On several levels, this is as riveting a song, one with as rich
an interior life, as Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” – and if you know the
tune, you know that’s saying a lot.


It’s hard to convey the emotional impact of these two “Arms”
on the printed page – it’s as if Sickenberger and her players captured
something of an essence so rare and pure that to spend time analyzing it risks
letting it slip away; best to hold on tightly instead. See, the most powerful
music is the kind that finds its way to your heart and wraps its tendrils around
your soul when you’re not expecting it or looking for it. Admittedly, in the
modern era it seems the volume has been turned up so loud that we sometimes just
want to shut everything out. But that’s precisely why you should keep your ears
open. Imagine what you might miss, just beneath the roar, if you don’t.


Standout Tracks: “No Strong Arms” (both versions); “Settle Down”; “Climber of Mountains FRED


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