To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.Wendell Berry, poet and farmer
Like Berry, singer-songwriter Cheri Knight farms for a living, raising wildflowers in rural western Massachusetts. And just as Berry does with his poetry, Knight cultivates the heart’s darker recesses in her songs. On her new album, The Northeast Kingdom (E-Squared), she finds strength, even beauty, where anguish and forbidden desire take root and grow. ”I hold you in my muddy hands, I dig you with my spade,“ she sings on ”Black Eyed Susie,“ a crunching rocker about a conflicted relationship. ”I’ve done all a girl can do to get you in the ground again.“
Here, as elsewhere, Knightwho used to play bass and sing with Boston’s Blood Orangesconfronts her stormiest emotions, a process that, though painful, often leads to growth and even redemption. On the title track, for example, she unearths false piety and finds release. ”In these houses of stark white,“ she sings, ”All our sins are nailed beneath the clapboards/And all our secrets are swinging from the rafters/Through these open windows I am borne away.“
Elsewhere, semi-confessional narratives such as ”Dar Glasgow“ and ”Dead Man’s Curve“ depict Appalachian-style tragedy. Yet unlike Palace’s Will Oldham, whose Southern Gothic is little more than a dilettantish pose, Knight doesn’t romanticize the cycles of death and rebirth upon which her imagery depends. Rather, her songs convey resiliency. As someone with close ties to the earth, she faces life’s hard passages as she does the changing seasonsmatter-of-factly, though never taking them for granted.
”The other day I went out,“ she said in an interview early last December. ”I’d been away for a month. I walked out to where my flowers were, and there was nothing there. I had envisioned myself walking through all these bloomy flowers, and it just looked so dead. But I know that in four months I’m gonna be in the greenhouse with more seeds and dirt. So I don’t find it depressing. Death is part of life, even if most people try to avoid it.
”I’m not saying that loss is easy for me to deal withanyone who’s heard my music knows it’s kind of my theme, and my biggest fear. Farming just allows me to put it into some kind of perspective that doesn’t make it so scary.“
Judging by the haunting, organic arrangements on The Northeast Kingdomwhich include everything from harmonium and hurdy-gurdy to the heartrending harmonies of Siobhan Kennedy and Emmylou Harrismusic functions in much the same way for Knight. ”When I was a kid,“ she says, ”I remember hearing the song åSuzanne’ by Leonard Cohen, and having this total revelation that music could show you a truth that was beautiful and sorrowful and ugly at the same time. I like that kinda stuffNick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Richard Thompson.“
Indeed, except for two hillbilly shuffles and a pair of Liz Phair-ish rockers, the music on Knight’s second album recalls the early, Celtic-influenced work of Richard Thompson, especially the records he made with Fairport Convention and with his then-wife Linda. While Knight’s rich alto more often evokes the Linda Thompson of I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, the overall effect on The Northeast Kingdom is closer to the dusky alchemy of Fairport singer Sandy Denny’s 1971 solo album, The North Star Grassman and the Ravens.
”I just like the way that modal stuff sounds,“ Knight says. ”It feels right. When I first heard Richard Thompson, I couldn’t believe that there was somebody who played guitar like what I would hear in my head walking through the woods. I’ve always been into that type of music. It’s spooky. It’s kinda lonely.“
Knight’s stylistic debts notwithstanding, The Northeast Kingdom sounds like nothing else that has emerged from the current wave of alternative-country-rock, a movement with which many associate her former band, Blood Oranges. Much of the credit for this goes to coproducers Ray Kennedy and Steve Earle, who, according to Knight, allowed her ample room to re-create the dark, fertile music that she heard in her head. These days, it’s not often that a record bankrolled by a major label in this town bears an artist’s indelible stamp.
Cheri Knight performs with Steve Earle, 6 String Drag, and Julie and Buddy Miller, Thursday, Feb. 19, at 328 Performance Hall.
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