For fans of Juliana Finch, one of America’s great “undiscovered” female singer-songwriters, 2011 couldn’t possibly come soon enough. Since her 2007 release “How to Take the Fall,” a powerful sophomore production and fitting follow-up to her seminal “Omelettes and Biscuits,” she has hinted at release of new material through a number of live shows, online pre-releases, and a strong bid at the (sadly, canceled) Lilith Fair Atlanta. Inarguably, “How to Take the Fall” was a reminder that the traditional female singer-songwriter formula survived the onslaught of the late 1990s intact, and Finch’s unique blend of folk, country, blues, bluegrass, and Irish traditional music has been a stand-out example that the American folk canon is still out there, waiting for another bright mind to pick up some of its fragments and melt them together into a unique and beautiful sound. The question has always been one of where Finch would go next.
After four long years, during which “How to Take the Fall” has remained timeless and classic, Finch has followed up with “Apples” and “Blossoms,” a diptych of EPs intended to follow the seasons of the year. The cover art alone, when compared to “How to Take the Fall,” tells a story of just how much Finch has grown, both personally and musically, in that period of time. Far from the realist imagery and symbolic heartbreak of “How to Take the Fall”, “Apples/Blossoms” features simple, colorful depictions of a tree in autumn and spring. The image is personal, from the “finch bird” nesting in the tree to the “JF+GH” initials, indicative of Finch and her spouse. The great success of “Apples/Blossoms” is in its very intentional decision to not be the massive magnum opus of its predecessor. The EPs represent a very intentional choice of a seasoned musician who, having broken down the door already, now taking time to enjoy the room. It’s this level of personal expression and exploration that makes “Apples/Blossoms” so eminently wonderful to experience.
“Apples” opens the duo, and in many ways, seems to pick up where “How to Take the Fall” left off. The lead track, “Say the Word,” is very much arranged and mixed in the style of a track from Finch’s previous works, and carries with it that distinctive sound that immediately reminds the listener of a glass of old bourbon (neat, of course), flaking paint on a weathered front porch, and the cold zephyrs of Stone Mountain around sunset time. It carries familiar themes of sentimentality, love, and loss, always wrapped in Finch’s trademark vocal style…fragile, yet never maudlin, and kept warm, rich, and world-wise with appropriate accents of blues and jazz elements. One of Finch’s great achievements in songs like “Say the Word” is her ability to draw the listener into the emotional content of the song but to leave no room to wallow.
To think that “Apples” is completely a bridge from prior works, however, is to vastly miss the point. Perhaps it’s just that autumn is that time when we all contemplate the one that got away. It is also, however, a time to contemplate matters of the home, of things ending and beginning, and to see the treasure in those we love the most. This is where Finch makes her greatest artistic steps in “Apples.” Where “How to Take the Fall” was a study in heartbreak punctuated by moments of relief and vague optimism, “Apples” revels profoundly genuine promise and the joys of the moment. It is, ultimately, a picture of a happy, warm home filled with love. Whether it’s the feeling of waking up tangled in the sheets with your beloved, looking around at the walls of your home in satisfaction, or the hope and promise that comes with Christmas, the solstice, and the lengthening of days, it’s impossible to not hear in Finch’s voice someone whose heart is truly and deeply at rest. For those of us who know that feeling, “Apples” is a powerful reminder; for those who might not yet, it’s a powerful blueprint.
“Apples” finishes on a wonderfully humorous note, lightening the mood and self-reflection with a cover of “Walking After Midnight” recorded live. Finch’s jazzy chops and multifaceted vocal prowess are, of course, beyond sufficient to the task of cutting the EP’s sentimentality before it drags the listener too deeply into reverie, and the track provides an excellent breaking point for “Blossoms” to step in.
“Blossoms” opens with a cover of “All of Me,” arranged with guitar and accordion in a fashion that would likely make Jacques Brel smile if he were capable. It’s nearly impossible to reiterate how clearly comfortable Finch seems with jazz, and one can only hope this may be a new vista ripe for her exploration, as various touches of jazz grace “Blossoms” through and through. Diehard fans of Finch will be delighted to have a studio recording of “Peachtree,” one of the most promising songs from her live performances. What will be a complete surprise, though, is the song’s arrangement, using upright bass, electric piano, and a dash of percussion to give it a bit of a throwback feel. Where the live performance of “Peachtree” is the very typical bright-and-tender sound we’ve all come to expect, the studio version is warm and a little jazzy, something you’d expect from the Greenwich Village less than from the actual Peachtree St in Atlanta.
Of course, “Blossoms” is all about spring. The sunlight shines through in every track. The cherries and apples and dogwood are blooming while the leaves are still in their buds. Finch, again, turns to love and human connection for her inspiration, and again, it is full of promise and hope where “How to Take the Fall” was full of reflection and longing. Where “Apples” seems directly focused at one lover…perhaps a life partner…and about home, “Blossoms” hops and skips around, exploring first the feeling of infatuation, then of professing to be in love, and finally of commitment and marriage. Where “Small Things” leaves off with a June bride, “What You’re Wishing For” on “Apples” picks up with, perhaps, a first family Christmas. “Blossoms” caps off with the upbeat and light-hearted “Radiator Charlie,” which again helps to clear off the intense emotionality of the EP before the listener can get lost in thoughts and memories. Those who adore Finch’s mastery of country and bluegrass will be in for a treat with this track. Besides…it’s spring, and it’s time to stop dancing in the kitchen and start dancing in the yard!
Finch’s third major release is in every way what we’ve come to expect from her. There’s no pretense in her musical career…she takes timeless and evocative raw material and, through careful arranging and her signature sweet-as-molasses voice, refines something far beyond the whole of its parts. What’s so ultimately rewarding about “Apples/Blossoms,” however, is its power to come across as deeply intimate. This isn’t Juliana Finch The Musician. It’s Juliana Finch. Or maybe just “JF,” like it says on the tree. Through both “Apples” and “Blossoms,” there’s an unavoidable impression that Finch has seen so much more of the world and of herself since “How to Take the Fall.” There’s a certain settling-into-herself with the release of “Apples/Blossoms,” with songs that may not have explicitly been written for these albums (“Small Things” was a gift at a friend’s wedding), but which seem to give off a story of someone leaving behind the slings and arrows of dating life and emerging into something more. If we’ve all had to wait four years while she’s made that journey, then it’s been four years well-spent for all of us. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another four before she blows us away again.