Artist: Iris DeMent
Album: The Trackless Woods
Release Date: 08/07/2015
This is why we listen to complete albums– not just for a few songs, but for a poignant statement. You are literally transported into Iris’ living room for this recording, which highlights mostly her church-like piano playing and her idiosyncratic vocals. The album concept itself is remarkable, putting the words of 2oth century dissident, Russian poet Anna Akhmatova to music. Why? This is in one respect a tribute to the daughter that Iris and husband, Greg Brown, adopted from Russia in 2005 when she was just shy of 6 years old. Yet, DeMent was not familiar with Akhmatova’s work until a friend had loaned her a book containing some of the poet’s work. Immediately a little voice told DeMent to set this to music, and with the help of some friends, four years later we have 18 poems with music. DeMent, who was raised by strict Pentecostal parents in the Bible Belt, obviously felt some kinship with the defiant Ahkmatova, who lived through the Lenin and Stalin regimes but refused to go into exile. Themes of spiritual optimism, coping with terror and stoicism color the Russian poet’s courageous work, and it’s best to read the lyrics in the liner notes while listening to truly appreciate the full work of art.
A carefully chosen group of musicians add textures and accents to DeMent’s mostly melancholy, hymn-like melodies. Jon Graboff is on pedal steel, producer Richard Bennett plays the guitarphone (whatever that is) and Leo Kottke picks a 12-string acoustic and electric guitar. Several family members harmonize, most memorably Greg Brown on “Not Deserters.” I have only one small quibble – Iris’s vocals are just a little too low in the mix in some places. Throughout though, as you listen to Akhmatova’s – I’m going to stick this out – attitude, you gain more admiration for DeMent’s equally unrelenting passion at putting this brilliant poetry to music. Hint: listen carefully without any distractions or interruptions.
– Jim Hynes