Mel Parsons has always had the right approach and enough of the right sound. Tour, tour, tour, write, write, write – lovely voice and these soft, malleable song-shapes. All correct, present, accounted for – but there are so many people vying for that space, New Zealand seems/seemed to be running near pandemic-levels too when it came to The Female Singer/Songwriter – the sort of tag almost all of the candidates would hate I’m sure.
But still, girl with a guitar – and some songs too – we were (are?) inundated.
So, here’s Parsons’ third album, and it’s – head and shoulders – her best. The previous albums were charming, often very, very good but Drylands manages to sidestep this girl-with-a-guitar thing. It’s a rounded, full-band sound, and guitarist/co-producer Gerry Paul sets up a mood, immediately, on the soft-burn urgency of opener Far Away (a slight Celtic gleam in the song’s eye) that lets you know you’re in for something different, and primarily because Parsons was open to creating something different.
Early standout is Driving Man – a song of eerie mood and subtle textures, a song that shows time spent listening, absorbing the album cuts of the Don McGlashans and Dave Dobbyns of this world, the Mark Knopflers for that matter.
And then one of Parsons’ heroes, the wonderful Ron Sexsmith steps up to help Don’t Wait into place. This is subtle, a mercurial ballad and further proof, as the album continues to roll out, that each new song follows on from the previous as if chapters in a book. This is no concept album but there’s a perfect logic to the shape of it, the flow of these story-songs. Sexsmith is subtle too, no big pay-day, no star-turn, just a musician engaging with a song, helping to push it into place. You hear that he cares.
The same could be said of all of the musicians here – an album stacked with class-act players. Craig Terris – one of New Zealand’s great for-the-song drummers, Gerry Paul’s intuitive guitar ideas, the backing vocals of Anika Moa, a few cameos here and there too – Ed Zuccollo helping to flavour Far North Coast with his simple, stately piano and Hammond, the Waterboys’ bassist Trevor Hutchinson nods in too. Parsons’ own bassist Aaron Stewart shouldn’t be ignored either, particularly for the way he and Terris sit so comfortably inside pop songs like Good Together – playing them straight, perfect.
On Friend the band could be Drive-By Truckers set to simmer, and on songs like the aforementioned Good Together and Get Out Alive Parsons seems to be operating in a space similar to Suzanne Vega; quality writing that avoids being pigeonholed but is open to occasional country flourishes and adornments, is anchored in/by a proud folk-derived feel.
Most charming about the album is that not a note feels out of place.
Go back to your collection, think of the albums that have any impact – momentary or lasting – very few can say so much without occasionally seeming like they might be speaking out of turn, talking too loud or even – briefly – not really saying anything at all.
Parsons not only means and feels every moment here, every song, ever story – her band is with her, beside her; they’re all wrapped up inside this music.