Fom Alice Coltrane to Joanna Newsom to Mary Lattimore, a rich lineage of artists have sought to liberate the harp from its familiar roles in the symphony and the church. In the worlds of jazz, ambient, classical, and even electronic music, the instrument is enjoying a prolonged renaissance. But it’s still rarely heard in a rock-band context. Both impractically large and delicate in timbre, the 90-odd pound instrument tends to be spotlit and showcased—not made to wrestle with guitars and drums. On Mikaela Davis’ latest album, And Southern Star, the Hudson Valley-based songwriter and bandleader embarks on her most stirring experiments yet in blending the soft tones of the harp into a fully realized rock sound.
And Southern Star emphasizes its full-band approach in every aspect, including the title. Southern Star is the name of the ensemble—comprising drummer Alex Coté, guitarist Cian McCarthy, bassist Shane McCarthy, and pedal steel player Kurt Johnson—that has backed Davis onstage for a decade. And Southern Star marks their first time appearing on a record with her, and their years of symbiosis come through in the easy chemistry of these arrangements. Davis and the band work through passages of rugged alt-country, twangy roots rock, paisley-bedecked Laurel Canyon psychedelia, and jam-band choogle, always staying anchored in the interplay between the stringed instruments.
The relationship between Davis’s harp and Johnson’s steel guitar is particularly fascinating. It’s a thrill to hear these instruments—one from the chapel, one from the honky-tonk—weave in and out of one another’s paths, occasionally meeting in harmony. Country music isn’t the sole focal point of And Southern Star, but it’s where the album shines. “Home in the Country” is breezy and pastoral, with Davis and Johnson trading lead melodies over a strummed acoustic pattern. (A disintegrating vocal effect in its back half is a pleasant surprise, and one of the album’s few distinctly modern touches.) “Saturday Morning” dials into the same languorous, cosmic frequency as the Flying Burrito Brothers, while “Don’t Stop Now” nods to the sun-soaked country-rock of Sheryl Crow.
Davis’ harp gives the album a textural signature, but it’s her pliant, deceptively sturdy vocals that give the songs their shape. Like Crow, she manages to find emotional profundity while sounding monumentally unbothered. Even when she’s singing about the sting of faded love, as she does on highlights like “Far From You” and “Promise,” she sounds like she’s dispensing wisdom from a beach chair. Her easygoing delivery nearly obfuscates the strange configuration of And Southern Star, a contrast that feels deliberate. The harp hasn’t found much mainstream success as a lead instrument, but these warm, inviting songs make it feel possible. On And Southern Star, Davis and her bandmates make a daring choice of instrumentation that becomes an intuitive, integral part of their rock’n’roll.
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