Claire Cronin is a poet and musician from LA. She has self-released a number of solo records in the past (the pick of which are nicely compiled in Over and Through, a best-of that’s available to buy via Bandcamp), but her latest album, Came Down a Storm, is the result of a collaboration with Deerhoof guitarist John Dieterich. The pair met at a show in LA and began a long-distance songwriting partnership, a relationship which eventually resulted in an album of the highest quality. Cronin’s background in literature (she’s currently completing an English PhD at University of Georgia and her poetry has been published) imbues her music with an authentic atmosphere, a depth and texture which raises it above the majority of contemporary folk. The influence of Dieterich should also not be underestimated, his added instrumentation taking the songs beyond the relatively simple folk leanings of Cronin’s previous solo work, creating an album that’s rich and complex and begs to be explored.
Came Down a Storm opens with ‘The Unnatural’, which sees Cronin’s vocals front and centre, on top of gothic guitar and background instrumentation that’s strange and unsettling, whining like whalesong or huge train cars swinging slowly around a bend in the desert. It’s the first taste of an album that is distinctive and somewhat paradoxical, the songs sparsely arranged and yet ornately delivered, Cronin’s more traditional folk sound bent weird by the addition of Dietrich, a decision that suits her dark and image-heavy lyrics just perfectly. “Notes form the funeral dirges, prayers memorised in churches” she sings on ‘Unnatural’, “restrung in combinations, hung high for celebrations”. The whole album is full of lines such as this, lines that feel instinctive and immediately deeper than their surreal surface. As the blurb from the record label puts it, “[Cronin] sings of death in a field, death at sea, dreams of dying, and a vision of a future where death is no longer allowed”.
“Death quitted us completely
left all his old machinery
tie ribbons ’round your letters
let’s bury them together “
Follow-up ‘In the Field’ is more conventional, Cronin’s vocals dragging and aching over acoustic guitar, while ‘Valentine’ pairs her vocals with a shambling folk rock, the Claire Cronin take on a lazy bar-room love song. ‘Meet Me Undertakers’ has a sad Gothic edge, like the work of those southern writers who got to the bottom of the human condition in the shadowy corners of existence.
“Meet me in a field
with your coat on fire
stalks of hemlock yield
taken by desire
Find me in the snow
white, I hide the trees
white, the ash and bone
show you all my teeth
Turn me in your arms
while the music plays
sway me into dark
too much moonlight in this place”
‘Dark Water’ comes on quick and surreal, the reverberating landscape in a feverish dream, super-charged and strobing like a massive, neon-flashed electrical storm. “Tie me to the mast, the trap,” Cronin sings in another line steeped in cryptic portent, “the tragedy”. Eventually the track dissipates, ending with what feels like the lull after the clattering tumult where the landscape can catch its breath, just vocals and some delicate strings. Closer ‘Dreamt the Sea’ is slow-burning finale, over eight minutes of Cronin and Dietrich’s interpretation of a narrative-driven folk song. Sonically, it begins with the gentle acoustic guitar of earlier tracks, but drags on into more experimental territory, the percussion like detritus blowing around some desolate wasteland, over the salty foamed-tipped breakers that crash on a lonely shore.
“I dreamt the sea wouldn’t take you
wouldn’t break you in its waves
But I was wrong — you are salt-strung
still a line inside this place
On the green backs of our new love
you were ruthless, unafraid
I was soundless, left you down with
all the bright ships of your pain “
At it’s halfway point the song seems to slip into night-time, as if the sun has fallen from the horizon, and long creaking moans creep across the water from vessels that lie far beneath, ghostly shapes of grey and green in the moonless night. By the outro, Cronin’s voice has become just another instrument, a plaintive coo amongst others, part of the fabric of the music.
The real success of Down Came a Storm is how Claire Cronin and John Dieterich combine to spin stories and landscapes from their combined talents, every element given equal standing to conjure not only folk tales but the worlds in which they exist. Here you can feel the wind on your skin, hear it move in the trees, smell its scent of salt and earth and ozone. You can feel it move the characters too, propelling them into dark, poetic places where nature rules and comfort can be found in the starkest of elements.
You can order Came Down a Storm on CD or LP via the Ba Da Bing! Records online store.