Back in 1990, when Uncle Tupelo released No Depression, the idea of alt-country probably seemed necessary. Garth Brooks’ self-titled album had been released the year before, and country music as a genre seemed to be losing touch with its roots: as the stars of the Grand Ole Opry drifted towards the excesses of arena rock, the signifiers (10-gallon hats, tassels and so on) were getting in the way of the substance.
By giving the genre the same kick in the pants punk gave to rock, the movement has been remarkably successful. It may not have spared us from Shania Twain or Faith Hill, but throughout the 1990s, artists as varied as Lucinda Williams, (early) Wilco, Gillian Welch and Steve Earle have reminded us of country music’s fundamental, deeply earnest mission: small stories of small lives, writ large.
So I’m not sure we especially need alt-country any more, any more than we really need alternative music. Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the self-titled debut album by Carrie and the Cut Snakes, which I wouldn’t describe as alt-country any more than Carrie Henschell’s heroine, Dolly Parton.
This is, in case you’re wondering, a good thing. Henschell is a 20-something songwriter from Brisbane, whose parents live on a farm on the Darling Downs. The Cut Snakes aren’t yet a stable combination – Henschell’s progress has been delayed by shifting personnel – but that hasn’t stopped her and bass player/engineer Bradley Wright from assembling this nearly perfect debut album.
Henschell’s strengths are apparent from the brisk opener, Can’t Call You. First, she’s a excellent singer – distinctive and clear, albeit with occasional Australian vowels so flattened they might make Missy Higgins blush. Second, she’s smart. Her songs are insightful, witty and above all plain-spoken. There’s no bullshit here.
Third, she’s a terrific arranger – here are 10 songs, only two of them nudging over the four-minute mark, performed with verve and economy. After listening to this album for the umpteenth time since first hearing a burned version months ago (which Henschell nearly jettisoned), at least half the tunes are still swimming in my head.
The effect of a song as sharp as If Love’s Not Growing It’s Dying is like having the intelligence of Lisa Miller and the pop suss of Kasey Chambers wrapped in one package – or perhaps the Pretenders on a Dolly trip. “I’m not everything you want / And I’m not everything you need / I’ll probably never be / But I’m gonna make you notice me,” she yearns. It’s, well, special, if you get my drift.
We Will Be Forgotten is another winner, a heartfelt but never clichéd rumination on life’s big questions, with a swelling chorus inspired by the passing of a friend. “I don’t know how it started, and I don’t know how it will end / I don’t like puzzles with missing pieces, or guessing when there’s no answers,” Henschell sings, over some nicely understated organ playing.
Love Song risks outright sentimentality, and triumphs with immaculate self-harmonies and the sort of vocal patience that Elvis brought to songs like Love Me Tender – OK, it might not be in that league, but the song still aches with longing. Isolated is preceded by lengthy, almost a Capella intro before blossoming into a genuine boot-scootin’, honky-tonk rave-up with multiple time changes.
The clear highlight, though, is Recklessness. It opens unobtrusively, with subdued chords overlaid by a wash of steel guitar, before exploding into the chorus: “I need energy, I need fuel / I want answers, I want release / I need nourishment, I need care / I want overload, I want recklessness!” Henschell pushes her voice as far as it can go here; the sound of it cracking as she repeats the last line puts a lump in the throat.
A surprise is saved for last. Sound Of Silence isn’t a cover of the Simon and Garfunkel classic, but a protest song by local anarchist/blogger Andy Paine. In a bit over three minutes, it contrasts the stories of a factory girl in India, a child soldier in Africa and a corporate office worker in Sydney to demonstrate how silence makes us complicit in the suffering of others. Paine needed someone to sing it for him and Henschell, a social worker by day, does it with sorrow and empathy.
This is a fine debut by a exceptionally talented new artist. The folks in Tamworth should go ga-ga over this, but there’s also no reason why, like Chambers, Henschell and her Cut Snakes shouldn’t cross over to a wider audience.