It is fair to say that Josephine Foster’s career to date is nothing if not varied. She appears to be most at home when working on something with a theme, whether that might be writing songs based on the poems of Emily Dickinson, children’s songs or channeling traditional Spanish tunes. I’m A Dreamer however, does not appear to revolve around a central conceit beyond that of simply being a collection of wonderfully evocative songs.
This is an album that appears to have been written, recorded and performed in an entirely different era. There’s something not quite right about listening to these songs on a format as bland and uninteresting as MP3, hell, even a CD would seem a little too clinical. The sound of I’m A Dreamer is rooted in the past, specifically the 1920s or ’30s, and would be more at home on a 78 than anything else. Vinyl would be a reasonable option, but sometimes there’s not a lot of warmth to Foster’s performance, and the cold, hard crackle of shellac would be more apposite. It’s quite easy to imagine these songs being played in front of the hearth, pipe smoke curling in the air, bare floorboards creaking beneath Foster’s feet as she unleashes that voice and an audience rapt in wonder as she veers from a peculiar operatic warble to a conversational hush.
On the haunting country ballad of No One’s Calling Your Name for example she manages to sound quite beautiful and yet almost goading too. A cursory listen could find it easily misconstrued as a heavy lidded lullaby, but then even lullabies tend to have a darker side to them. Whilst there’s certainly a sense of loneliness that pervades here, it is there to be exploited and pointed out constantly by Foster’s vocal on lines like “maybe it’s true, maybe it’s sad, no one’s calling your name”. It’s like a pointed critique at funeral in place of a eulogy. Amuse A Muse pulls a similar trick with Foster assuming the role of a slightly damaged chanteuse. Lines like “she’s liable to decay, the flesh will rot away” present a dark underbelly to her quite exquisite vocal displays.
It’s not all extreme contrasts, however. Opening track Sugarpie I’m Not The Same is a wonderful little bar room shuffle complete with harmonica, gently swinging double bass, and a piano given to a little honky-tonk here and there. The title track is a delicate and suggestive conversation between lovers, and it’s kept at barely a whisper with just a guitar, harmonica and Foster’s hushed voice setting the scene. Pretty Please hints at ramshackle musichall and heartbreak, but keeps things swinging with a strychnine grin. Magenta’s quite beautiful folk meanwhile is perhaps the finest moment on the album, with the instrumentation creating an almost palpable mood of sadness.
Whilst it is Foster’s performance that commands the attention throughout the album, without her quite phenomenal (nine-piece) band it would be almost certainly be lacking. Their ability to utilise space allows these songs to breathe, creating an undeniable ambiance. The production too is handled perfectly, Andrija Tokic’s deft touch lending the album an almost live quality that makes these songs so immediate and enchanting. It’s most obvious on the likes of Magenta, but whether they’re acting with restraint or swinging gently, their performance is always perfectly judged.
I’m A Dreamer is never going to set the world alight with innovative new sounds, but these songs are perfect little gems that possess a timeless quality. A great song is a great song after all, and Josephine Foster has great songs in abundance.