A vivid presence on the Austin music scene for nearly a decade now, Carson McHone drew wider acclaim with 2018’s exceptional Carousel, issued on Loose the following year. And while subsequent tours of the UK and Europe furthered her reputation as a country traditionalist with leftfield leanings, Still Life feels altogether more ambitious.
It’s certainly rockier in places, with McHone and producer/multi-instrumentalist Daniel Romano driving hard on tunes like “Hawks Don’t Share” and “Only Lovers”, punctuated by fat brass and gnarly guitars. Saxophonist David Nardi and Mark Lalama (piano, organ and accordion) are key to all this too, helping bring an intuitive sense of motion. There’s swishy R&B and some Southern soul as well, though McHone and her acoustic guitar remain squarely front and centre of these captivating songs, so that any embellishments are complementary rather than a distraction.
Her supple voice is a thing of understated beauty, bonded to tales of emotional attachment and release in a way that suggests full closure is still a little way off. With its nod to Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow”, the narrator of the expertly measured “Folk Song” is blindsided by reckless desire, leaving herself hopelessly vulnerable in the process: “But let it be known I was not broken/I let myself become undone”. At other times, self-preservation seems to be paramount. The conflicted character in the piano-led “Sweet Magnolia” attempts to resolve their turmoil by pre-emptively cutting themselves loose from heartbreak; On “Spoil On The Vine”, a lonely folk dispatch that slowly gains colour from strings and electric guitar, McHone trusts no-one, least of all herself.
“Dream scars across my face/Ain’t it strange/A privileged pain,” she sings, waking from troubled slumber. McHone navigates all this knotty psychic terrain with real assurance, be it the forbidden thrills of “Someone Else” or the search for completeness that guides the elegant “Fingernail Moon”. In the end, as she points out in the upbeat “Only Lovers”, it might just be safer to stay strangers.