Plenty of vocalists can sing with power, and some can sing with convincing subtlety. There aren’t very many who can do both in the same breath. Emmylou Harris can, and PJ Harvey, too, in a different way. Neko Case is among the very few who has developed the ability as her career has progressed. That’s rarified company, for sure, but it’s where Courtney Marie Andrews belongs with her latest.
Though the Seattle singer has been releasing albums for the better part of a decade, she has somehow escaped broader notice, despite also working as a session singer and guitarist for acts including Jimmy Eat World and Damian Jurado. Though Honest Life is technically Andrews’ sixth album, she has withdrawn the first three. That’ll be a fun puzzle for completists, but for most listeners, these 10 new songs are likely to serve as an introduction.
They make a hell of a first impression. Andrews sings with the knowing air of someone who has seen a lot of life, and the quiet optimism of someone who knows there’s so much more yet to see. It’s a powerful blend on songs about itinerant lives, fragile hearts and the steady determination of people searching for something they themselves would likely be hard-pressed to name. “I am sitting all alone on this train,” Andrews sings on opener “Rookie Dreaming.” “I am a passenger to somewhere/ I do not yet know the name.” Her tuneful, often double-tracked murmur on the verses blossoms into bright yearning on the chorus, and images scroll past like the scenery out the window of the train she’s riding.
She favors acoustic guitar, accented with trebly electric guitar or pedal steel (or both), prominent piano and unobtrusive deep-pocket rhythms. It’s a sound that echoes the folk and country-rock of the early 1970s, and Andrews knows all the moves: she’s wounded and indignant when her effort to impress a recent ex backfires on “How Quickly Your Heart Mends,” she offers a warning couched as advice on the dusty country-soul gem “Irene,” and resolves to try staying in one place for a while on “Put the Fire Out,” a jubilant song spilling over with all the things Andrews’ narrator can’t wait to do once her flight home arrives.
They’re excellent songs, expertly written, but Andrews’ voice is what makes them unforgettable. She’s a model of impeccable control on “Let the Good One Go,” her voice rising and falling like a series of deep, controlled breaths. She is just as masterly on the title track, where the source of her power lies in the restrained way she uses it: Like Harris, Andrews’ voice can ring out with force of feeling even at its softest, and relying on nuance instead of vocal pyrotechnics turns the song into an intimate confession. She demonstrates that same good taste, and finely honed skill, throughout Honest Life, resulting in an album at once elegant and deeply moving.