- July 02, 2019
- Kelly McCartney
- Album Reviews
by Kelly McCartney (@theKELword), Folk Alley
Not everyone can be alone with nothing but their thoughts to fill the space that surrounds them. Even if other people are around, giving yourself over to stillness, solitude, and silence necessarily demands the courage to be vulnerable and honest in your internal self-assessments. Imagine hiking a trail in that state for four hours... four days... 40 hours...
Singer/songwriter/guitarist Courtney Hartman did just that for 40 days as she trekked across Spain's 500-mile Camino de Santiago trail. Along the journey, she eschewed listening to music, but embraced writing it. The result is her first solo effort, the truly spectacular Ready Reckoner.
An almost uncomfortably intimate-sounding record, Ready Reckoner puts Hartman's voice so up front in the mix that it isn't just right there beside you; it's right there inside you. The opening track, “Hollow,” sets that mood in a deeply mesmerizing fashion. Not until the end of the first chorus do the captivating percussive elements bob and weave their way in, creating contours and textures with which her stellar guitar work can mingle.
That same equation forms each song's foundation, but never the same way twice, as the cycle continues. On some, other instrumental flourishes come in at not quite awkward angles to create a very slight, ever intriguing dissonance and tension, while others swoop and swell, coaxing the listener to lean all the way over the edge of each particular musical cliff.
Thanks to Hartman's deftness as a writer, singer, and player, the album moves through myriad styles but never fails to feel like her. For instance, “Belfry” harkens back to the kind of gentle jazz found on Court & Spark, while “Too Much” lays its tender folk atop the steady sound of footsteps walking the trail and “Neglect” creates an instrumental space for Hartman to dance with guitar master Bill Frisell.
Co-produced by Hartman with Shahzad Ismaily, and mixed by Tucker Martine, Ready Reckoner finds the writer's seeking and self-doubt tangled together in a beautiful web. In song after song, she faces her fears head on and out loud. Hartman sums the whole thing up perfectly in the last lines of her bio: “Slowly I am allowing myself to be completely who I am, with whatever sounds and stories that stirs up,” she says. “If I can claim all those things as my own — without shame or fear — then maybe it will begin to take away any need to be someone else.” If the result is music as beautiful as this, may it be so.