Chicagoan Rachel Ries has been steadily and somewhat quietly building a reputation as one of the country's finest Americana singer-songwriters. Although her music is steeped in tradition, a hint of urban flavor means you can't quite call it old-time. How 'bout medium-time? Nah, that sounds like a tempo.
Ries often tours with Burlington ex-pat Ari Bolles, who just happens to be the sister of reigning Seven Days music editor Dan Bolles. Bolles' soeur also offers her considerable musical skills to Ries' excellent new disc, Without a Bird.
This record is like taking a luxurious bath in an Art Deco tub on the rooftop of a lived-in brownstone on a starry night. Sound good? You bet it is. The disc is clean and natural-sounding: no studio gimmickry here, just gorgeous arrangements and Ries' heart-wrenchingly elegant melodies.
Many albums don't find their groove until a few tracks in, but Bird takes flight early. Opener "Learning Too Slow" makes a fantastic first impression with its dulcet sway and minimal yet melodious instrumentation. And it only gets better from there.
"Never You Mind" swings like a happy drunk with a fresh paycheck. The song's throwback vibe echoes transient troubadour Jolie Holland, but you can't call Ries a copycat — her voice is truly her own as she weaves and bobs around the song's playful melody, accentuating certain words with a handsome drawl.
"I share my bed with a cat, a typewriter and a laptop / Oh it's telling, is it not? / I pull the covers up," she sings on the lilting "Chicago." Bolles joins in on the chorus, an affecting mix of Tin Pan Alley balladeering and twentysomething malaise.
Several songs on the record gave me shivers, including the hauntingly seductive "Fine, I'm Fine," which features moody cello and brushed drums. "I've got so much to learn if I'm in this for good / God help me lose these ringing blues," Ries sings yearningly. Minor-key in the verses and major in the chorus, the song evokes the aching uncertainties of bipolar disorder. Or maybe I just need to take my medication.
Other standouts include the title track, a humble meditation on making it through life's rough patches with a modicum of grace. The song's spare instrumentation of voice, acoustic guitar and electric piano coaxes maximum emotional impact from a minimum of music.
Pretty much every song on Without a Bird is affecting in its own right. And here I was thinking I was burned out on girly-Americana. Be sure to catch Ries, Bolles and her other brother Tyler when they play Montpelier's Langdon St. Café on August 30, and Radio Bean on September 2.