St. Paul’s Red House Records just keeps on rollin’ along, making the world safe for quality, grassroots folk music. And it was a fine fit when the label pulled off a coup to sign Canadian velvet throats the Wailin’ Jennys a few years back. So no one needs to call the purity police on Red House for deviating with Bird Song, a solo album by the Wailin’ Jennys’ moonlighting alto Heather Masse. So what if it’s not dust-bowl-dry fare, way off the beaten track? So what that it’s straight-ahead country music with—gasp!—a little jazz and pop thrown into the mix? The world will not come to an end.
Wonderfully backed by Jed Wilson (piano, Hammond B-3), Lyle Brewer (guitar), Karl Doty (bass), Joel Arnow (drums), and Aoiefe O’Donovan (vocals), Heather Masse sings up a sweet storm. The last time somebody combined this kind of quality rural roots and mainstream accessibility, Linda Ronstadt had just left the Stone Poneys to record her upstart triumph Silk Purse. Masse, of course, has not bolted from the Wailin’ Jennys and, in fact, is on tour with the group, as well as with the Heather Masse Band, even as we speak.
“Mittens” is a playful, tongue-in-cheek jaunt with Masse offering a little down-home seduction to a fellow who went outside in the winter air, forgetting to dress right. She matter-of-factly croons that she’ll warm his legs up so well he won’t miss them long johns for a minute. You get the distinct impression she’s telling the honest to God, no-brag-just-fact truth. “Chosen” is beautiful, bittersweet mood music, a portrait of an ill-at-ease lady that Masse delivers with haunting angst. You can’t beat “High Heeled Woman” for a rollicking hayride, featuring Patsy-Cline-style warbling that’ll raise your eyebrows and pin your ears back. When, after barreling along in fine, freewheeling spirits, the song finally comes to a rest, it’s hard to resist hollering “Yee-haw!” Don’t tell anyone I said that: I’ll get drummed out of the soul folk’s union and they’ll take back my secret decoder ring. “Our World” is indicative of most of the stuff here, thoughtful and heartfelt reminiscence set to rolling guitar licks and a pulsing beat as Masse airs out her crystal clear, powerhouse pipes.
There’s 13 cuts on Bird Song, all originals with Nicky Mehta of the Wailin’ Jennys helping out with the lyrics on the title song. Not a loser among them.