“Cycles” – Rachel Baiman

4 stars (out of 5)

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It’s all worthwhile when you hear an album as good as this. Rachel Baiman has created a collection of ten songs with a range of Americana musical stylings that is intensely personal while also referencing current social and political issues in the USA (although the album was recorded in Australia). The other thing you’ll notice about the songs is that whether personal or political, they mainly address issues that directly affect women (Rachel herself, her sister, her sister-in-law and her grandmother). They aren’t all happy stories, but that’s the whole point; the various cycles of life have good and bad phases. The mid-tempo title song, with its distinctive layered vocal is a tragic and yet uplifting story of two generations of women from the same extended family binding together in mutual support to deal with a still-birth and then a difficult birth; it’s deeply moving.

The two overtly political songs sit side by side on the album. “Rust Belt Fields” is Rachel’s take on a Rod Picott/Slaid Cleaves song; the song’s ten years old, but still sounds relevant. The minimalist one-bar percussion loop creates the relentless feel of the automobile production line, lost forever to more cost-effective (exploitative) overseas territories. The song is a fatalistic acceptance of the corrosion of the Steel Belt to the Rust Belt and the unmourned loss of the jobs this entailed: ‘No-one remembers your name just for working hard’. “Wyoming Wildflowers” is a Rachel Baiman/Olivia Hally song that uses the theme of diverse colours in nature to skewer white supremacist views. The lyrics are set against a gentle country-rock arrangement and the message is emphasized by the repetition of the final two lines.

There are ten superb examples of the songwriter’s art on “Cycles” including another that pressed all of my buttons, “No Good Time for Dying”, which deals with watching someone you love suffer the indignities of a protracted death; it’s not pretty, but it’s the end of the cycle that starts with the opening song. The album’s final song, “The Distance”, tackles the way we habitually deal with recurring life situations in the same way because it’s easier than thinking about another way.

The Rachel Baiman/Olivia Hally musical arrangements and production on “Cycles” are deceptively simple while featuring ambient instrumental sounds and layers of vocals that always allow the songs plenty of room to breathe. There are hints at times of the vocal stylings of Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, and even Rickie Lee Jones (on “No Good Time for Dying”) but the bottom line is very much Rachel Baiman, teasing out themes of family, work versus relationships, politics and even the “I Will Survive” sentiment of “Hope it Hurts”. This album is complex, sometimes painful and very rewarding.

“Cycles” is released in the UK on Signature Sounds Recordings (SIG-CD-2129 / SIG-LP-7038) on Friday June 11th. Here’s the video to “Joke’s On Me”:

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