Thursday, February 14, 2008

An elegant exploration of life as seen from the light

The Geography of Light
Artist: Carrie Newcomer (
Label: Rounder Records
Length: 14 tracks/51:04 minutes

The Geography of Light by Carrie Newcomer shows how elegant modern folk music can be. Storytelling, often associated with the genre, makes for a more literary style, but I like the fact that Newcomer doesn’t try to be clever in her songwriting or music. Her simplicity is beautiful.

That’s not to say that this is lacking in depth. On the contrary, this Quaker associates with theologians and authors like Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren and Phillip Gulley. The latter has written a glowing tribute to Newcomer’s artistry in the CD booklet. If any of these men were songwriters, they might write songs like the ones found here.

“Geodes” is a prime example. Geodes are mysterious rocks that are plentiful around Newcomer’s home in Southern Indiana. Though common on the outside with brown and gray exteriors, they contain a core of sparkling quartz crystals. Newcomer writes in the liner notes, “They remind me to look deeper, because often within what may appear quite ordinary is a core of beauty and mystery.” This is just one of many songs that Newcomer fills with thought that is rich and dense. Amazingly, it never sounds cluttered.

The thought behind “Throw Me a Line” is loosely drawn from chapter six of the gospel of Matthew where Jesus speaks of the futility of anxious thought. It includes the lovely line: “There’s a still quiet voice / It sounds a little like mine / Saying you’re right where you should be / It’s just gonna take time.” What a balm of peace for an anxious heart! The song is a beautiful plea for refuge in rapidly changing times.

It echoes a note of hope that is heard throughout. Even on a song like “A Mean Kind of Justice,” which casts a shadow, there is a ray of light: “There’s a goodness on this earth, that will not die, will not die / It bears all, it’s seen it all, and still it survives / And I know we have failed, but I’ve seen that we can fly.”

You can even hear the optimism in the music on “Leaves Don’t Drop (They Just Let Go).” Newcomer’s lilting voice mixes with piano notes that dance for joy.

As in the other songs, this is an exploration of life from the perspective of someone standing in the light. Newcomer avoids being trite, which is what makes this so appealing.

She admits that the music is sparser than previous efforts. The space between the notes provides breathing room for acoustic instruments that grab the spotlight. The percussion is light, and the production is clean and crisp.

Though I had not known of her before, this is Carrie Newcomer’s eleventh recording for Rounder Records. Listening to her is like finding sparkling crystals in ordinary-looking stones. She makes it seem like the winds of heaven are blowing through the stuff of earth.
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