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First thing you might notice about the new Coyote cd is how gorgeous it sounds. It’s minimal, just two vocalists and a few instruments, but it creates a soundscape you can get lost in. The songs are delicate, yet they have a deep resonance and crystal clarity. Every song starts out simple and rustic, then hits the sweet spot where the keyboards, bass or harmonies kick in and the hair stands up on the back of your neck. Is this what you get when you record at Sacred Heart? Did they know precisely where to place the mikes? Or did the crummy little speakers my desk suddenly start working well?
Coyote, based in the Twin Ports, started a decade ago as the duo of Jerree Small and Marc Gartman. (Alternate names considered for the band were “Chair” and “Crystal Uniform” and they wisely settled on the current choice.) Later they became a trio with Matt Mobley on upright bass.
This is Coyote’s fourth album but the first in six years, and the bazillionth project for Gartman, whose repertoire spans from techno/disco to Grateful Dead. Small is known for both her solo work and with the gospel/hip hop group Southwire. Mobley, also a Southwire alumnus, trained in jazz and classical. Still it’s difficult to imagine Coyote ever playing anything but folk, unless they have a collective stroke and decide to add a drummer.
Despite the title, “A Different Path,” the band is pretty much on the same banjo-and-guitar path they’ve been on since their first, “Time of the Drought.” Each album is more an exercise in fine tuning than in exploration, an ongoing quest for perfection.
The lyrics are as minimal as the music, wispy and enigmatic. Take the opening track, “Quicksand.” We all now know, despite what you’ve seen on TV, that quicksand is more a shoe-stealing nuisance than a deadly trap, but it still makes a good metaphor for love not doing so well: “I ain’t been breathin’ right for a long time now / You turn your world inside, still you’re losing ground.” Really, it’s just a word that has a nice ring, especially the way Small enunciates it, accompanied by Gartman’s crisp banjo. It gave me an ear worm, one I didn’t mind, for once. Especially since producer Steve Garrington provides shimmering organ accompaniment, giving the song a eerie, otherworldly feel.
The second track, “Pretty Coat,” drops in on the middle of a thought, starting with the word “and.” The song also seems to be about a dysfunctional relationship: “And if I didn’t dream I never would of seen you in the proper light … All the lingo hidden codes and secret messages, they start to weigh on me /but oh you’re such a pretty coat to wear.” (You might miss the barely audible word “you’re.”) There is no repeated chorus so it ends like it starts, in the middle of a vignette.
Gartman and Small trade off as lead vocalists, depending on who wrote which. On the third track, “Good Morning Love” (written by Mobley) they’re on equal footing and their voices blend beautifully. With brisk pace and building instrumentals, it lifts the album above the implicit melancholy of the first two tracks. “If This Was Love” slow the pace again, but Jerri’s voice soars to new heights.
The title track, “A Different Path,” would be a good fit for the soundtrack of a historical film, feeling like 19th century Americana. The subject seems to be how friends drift apart, but it can have many interpretations.
“What Is It That You Want,” written by Small, is perhaps the loveliest song on the album, full of longing and hope: “I don’t want to be made of stone, what is that you want / I don’t want be on my own / I want happiness for you / I want that too.” It builds in intensity, again buoyed by the organ accompaniment. “Haven’t Got the Heart,” also by Small, tugs even more at the heart.
There are very few weak spots, but I’d say one is “Sugar,” in which the banjo is too much like the piano riff in the overplayed 1970 Chicago hit “Colour My World.” My other gripe is the umpteenth remake of “500 Miles” … No, not the Proclaimers’ 1988 song, the 1960s folk revival hit made popular by Bobby Bare: “Away from home, away from home / cold and tired and all alone / Yes, I’m five hundred miles away from home … ” Yes, you’ve heard it, too many times, at least in my case. Maybe it’s just personal, because I got flashbacks to my fourth grade choir murdering this song. Still this version has fine harmonizing and ends with a strange, backmasked instrumental passage.
The 12 tracks are best described as “intimate,” as if they’re performing solely for you in an otherwise quiet room. Kick back with it when you’re in a contemplative mood, with a cup of tea and/or whiskey and a pack of handkerchiefs.