Cinder Well – No Summer

Though it might not be an intentional allusion, the commonalities between Black Sabbath and No Summer stretch beyond their cover art. To be clear, Amelia Baker’s compositions flirt with the “doom” label only in a spiritual sense, as her songwriting under the Cinder Well name is rooted squarely in the darker realms of folk music. But to deny the haunting atmospheres and emotional weight that define No Summer would only serve to misunderstood the full scope of its impact.

Plenty of folk albums cross my path each year, most of which stretch beyond the genre’s sparse blueprint of personal stories and acoustic guitar. But few contemporary folk records I’ve encountered offer the entrancing experience that befell me when I first traversed through Baker’s musical labyrinth, a journey I’ve gladly returned to for countless more somber pilgrimages.

I don’t always quote artist’s or label’s self-prescribed labels with my reviews; the beauty of art is how it takes a different form with each new viewer, sometimes completely divorced from the artist’s intentions. But this line struck me as a beautiful encapsulation of what No Summer has to offer: “Amelia Baker’s music isn’t nihilistic; instead, it strips traditional forms to their bones, creating a meditative, trance-like space for sonic healing.”

As you can probably surmise from the title, No Summer hardly fits in with the upbeat indie folk of The Decemberists or Father John Misty. And yet, you won’t hear Baker wallowing in despair, even when she delivers some of the album’s most melancholic lyrics. Instead, she feels like an honest narrator, capturing all the emotional nuance of each tale with their exact details. From there, the onus lies with the listener to determine what type of meaning and personal parallels they can draw from the yarns Baker spins.

It’s a refreshing approach to songcraft that’s clearly indebted to her own unique musical journey. Baker’s “transatlantic folk revival” began with her move from California to County Clare, a gorgeous cliffside region in Ireland. In here endeavor to understand the country’s musical traditions, she infuses the affinity for storytelling that defines Irish folk music into a modern, stylistically liberated approach to contemporary folk music, itself informed by “traditional Appalachian sources” and an anarchist mindset.

Almost 400 words in and I’ve yet to discuss a single track on No Summer. You could chock that up to my general verbosity (which would be a fair assertion). But in my view, the album truly speaks for itself in a way few new releases achieve each year. If not for my passion as a music reviewer, I could have taken the “short review” route à la Pitchfork’s Emergency & I write-up. Of course, there’s still plenty of ground to cover, so let’s refocus.

Aided by Marit Schmidt (viola, backing vocals) and Mae Kessler (violin, backing vocals), No Summer is a tour de force of contemporary folk from Baker, who handles vocals and guitar across the record. As mentioned above, No Summer sounds like a seamless marriage between the traditions of Irish and Appalachian folk, written within a modern compositional context.

Baker’s careful, almost reverent approach to these styles allows her original songwriting to flow beautifully with her arrangements of a few traditional songs, which rank among the album’s best tracks. They all strike a perfect balance between vintage and visionary, with the chilling, vocal-driven drone on “Wandering Boy,” dark folk tinges on “The Cuckoo,” and stunning, emotive fiddle performance on “Queen of the Earth, Child of the Skies.”

Regardless of author, each non-instrumental track is graced by Baker’s captivating vocals. Both her singing and lyrical delivery elevate every track she appears on, to the point it’s difficult to pick a favorite without highlighting every song. The title track is an excellent example of her songwriting prowess, as she unveils a bleak outlook on marriage atop an equally somber, Celtic-tinged tune:

Spent the whole year staring at the ring on your finger
Looking for summer in the slight of a glance
I’ll take you round to the side of the bar
and show you there is no summer here

I wake up counting how many times the bell tolls
sometimes it keeps going, I’ve lost count of the bells
summer is over now, it rains on the concrete
but the whiskey has seemed to have settled in the greyscale.

On “Our Lady’s,” Baker stretches beyond personal narratives to create a compelling narrative inspired by her surroundings. The track was inspired by an abandoned mental asylum in Ennis, County Clare. The string performances provided by Schmidt and Kessler are especially impactful here, bolstering the track’s immense lyrical weight:

They call me Our Lady’s.
My arms cold and cinder block
No one wanted to be here
They toppled the gates with their eyes closed

There is something cold
A blank wall can destroy you
It made everyone so quiet

Again, there are simply too many highlights to mention. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a final spotlight of “From Behind the Curtain.” The lyrics on this track are nothing short of a triumph, an emotionally honest and beautifully written account of Baker’s journey from California to Ireland, and the adjustment required to acclimate to her surroundings. These lines in particular grip me every time I hear Baker sing them:

Stop at the way home from the bar
to listen to the wind
because it sounds like the waves
in California

Some music lovers I know personally typecast folk as a slow, boring, and overly simplistic genre, a caricature they derive from hipsters with acoustic guitars they’ve heard at their local coffeeshops. The folk I know and love is arguably one of the most sonically and emotionally rich genres available to listeners. Artists need to ensure the musical and lyrical aspects of their sound are congruent in quality. A deficiency in either category can torpedo the success of the other half and the album as a whole.

In this regard, No Summer is one of the best contemporary folk albums I’ve ever heard. Baker offers everything you could possibly want from folk music and presents it in a way that honors where the genre has been and where its next path is heading. On every level, No Summer is an essential listen for anyone even remotely interested in this style of folk, or simply in the darker spectrum of what music has to offer. Remember the name Cinder Well; you’ll be hearing it again and again as Baker’s career progresses and she garners the acclaim she deserves.

No Summer is available July 24 via Free Dirt Records.

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"In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there's something stronger - something better - pushing right back." - Albert Camus