Album Review

Cheri Knight - The Northeast Kingdom

Cheri Knight - The Northeast Kingdom

From start to finish, Cheri Knight's second solo album (and first for E-Squared) brilliantly bounces back and forth from Emmylou Harris-like ballads to Liz Phair-esque rock, touching on everything in between. This album arguably defines the moniker "alternative country" and at the same time stomps on it, defying any genre tag anyone might throw out there. Knight pulls out all the stops, employing her former Blood Oranges bandmates Mark Spencer (guitars, shakers) and Jimmy Ryan (mandolin) while also calling upon the talents of co-producers Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy, drummer Will Rigby, bassist Garry Tallent, fiddler Tammy Rogers, and even backup vocals from Emmylou herself. On the first run-through of the disc (I'm now on listen #298 if you're scoring at home), the infectious pop/rock of "Black Eyed Susie" jumped right out, grabbed me by the collar and threw me around the room, thanks to the flat-out super guitar work by Spencer. It is simply one of the catchiest songs I've heard in years. Of course, I've always been a sucker for a cowbell, which makes this song damn near perfect. As soon as I stopped jumping all over the room from that one, the very next song nearly tore me apart. The absolutely breathtaking ballad "Crawling" sways gently with exquisite acoustic guitar and a gorgeous duet on the chorus, with Emmylou and Cheri singing painfully and beautifully: "And I am crawling/With my heart in my hands/I'd be a fool and I'd crawl back to you/And you'd just send me away." They're not just pulling on heartstrings, folks, they're yankin' 'em! The Celtic-influenced "The Hatfield Side" is reminiscent of the Blood Oranges' finer moments, showcasing Ryan's excellent mandolin playing and benefiting from the clear-as-day production of Earle and Emerson. The title track, featuring Knight on B-3 organ, is a darker foray that puts her vocals right up front, with the wah-wah sound of the organ trailing right behind in hot pursuit. "Sweetheart" is another gem: Slowly and quietly, Knight's voice prances during the verses and peaks during the choruses, a collective shout of "Sweetheart, do you favor another?" All the while, burning electric guitar, drums, tambourine, mandolin and Earle's high-string guitar shout and fight together with her voice, building to a fever pitch...only to be brought back down by the next verse. Truly amazing, unforgettable stuff. Perhaps the most interesting cut on the album is the leadoff track, "Dar Glasgow". Knight shifts gears here, bordering on world music as Earle playing harmonium while Knight and Emmylou chant together: "For all of life's riches/Fleeting and gone/I have a silent yearning so strong/My silver bucket never did shine/Carried a nectar as sweet as a wine." The heavy backdrop of Rigby's drums and the stark percussion of Kennedy add volumes to the tune's dark feel. "If Wishes Were Horses" is a light country song that features Rogers' fiddle, and "White Lies", the most blatant country cut on the album, is a superior swing tune backboned by Tallent on bass and Knight's always steady-as-ever singing voice. Anything wrong with this album? Yes. Not enough songs. By the time I got to the end, I was hoping it was only halfway through. Twelve songs may seem like a reasonable amount, but I would have been happy with, say, a triple album. That's not asking too much, is it?