- Helen Hummel, Many Waters
(Self-released, CD, digital download)
Acoustic singer-songwriter albums compel the listener to scrutinize the little things. When nearly every song is a bare-bones voice-and-guitar composition, the variations among them are minuscule, but nonetheless interesting or important — a crescendo here, a restrained chord wedged between two emphatic ones there, the ragged break of the singer's voice on a particular word. Acutely parsing out these tiny moments may seem like overkill. But they're largely how such artists distinguish themselves from the brood.
Take Bristol-bred strummer Helen Hummel, for instance. Her debut album, Many Waters, sounds a lot like any number of other acoustic singer-songwriter records. She doesn't reinvent the wheel by any stretch of the imagination. What sets her apart comes down to infinitesimal particulars. And, if apt listeners are keen enough, she could become a local fan favorite.
There's a hominess to Many Waters that likely stems from its backstory. Hummel spent some time living in California but returned to Vermont — as did this critic. In my experience, year-round perfect weather can be intoxicating but can also breed insidious apathy in those who dwell under a perennially shining sun. To wit: It's easy to forget life's urgency when today is always the same as yesterday. But it's doubtful Hummel ever forgot. Upon returning to New England, she got back to her roots — literally. She recorded the album in trade for work performed on a farm in New Hampshire.
"Goddamn, Honey" stands out with its memorable hook and the way the singer facilely lilts between head voice and belting. In fact, that's one of Hummel's greatest strengths throughout the album: her ability to convey emotional information by switching between her head and chest voices. Her fingers fold a gauzy pitter-patter between the greater thrums of the introductory chord progression, which continues throughout.
Cooing over plucked, staccato chords, Hummel shifts into a salty tone on the sharp and slightly sinister "Little Houses." With crunchy, muted chords on the offbeat, she adds percussive precision to the jaunty tune.
"Sleepwalker" is the richest track enclosed. Cellist Judith Serkin, who boasts an impressive résumé including the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, joins Hummel and adds a doleful double helix of heft and fine counterpoint to a devastating song full of desperation and longing. "I want you to stay," Hummel repeats, a thought so universal that it hurtles past cliché back to relevance.
Hummel may not win over anyone decidedly disinterested in the acoustic singer-songwriter genre. But her work is cohesive and more than adequately displays her talents as a songwriter and musician.
Many Waters is available at helenhummel.com. Hummel performs on Saturday, February 10, at SideBar in Burlington.