Former vocalist of the psychedelic folk band Espers, Meg Baird doesn’t seem to have sat still for long in the years since their last release, 2009’s III: she released her second solo album in 2011, the country-tinged Seasons On Earth; toured with the late Bert Jansch; worked with the likes of Kurt Vile, American Primitivist Glenn Jones and singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten; toured and recorded as drummer for Philadelphian garage punks Watery Love and founded a new psych-folk outfit – the fiery Heron Oblivion – alongside former members of Comets On Fire.
After all of that, Don’t Weigh Down The Light, her third solo LP, could well have been a simple, pared-down affair, closer perhaps to the stark voice, guitar and dulcimer arrangements of her début set, Dear Companion, which was a mixture of original material, covers and traditional folk tunes recorded between Espers’ third and fourth albums.
But Baird has instead crafted a collection of varied hue and texture. Dealing mostly with leaving – whether it’s a place or a person is not always clear – the songs are intimate and thematically dark but always illuminated, whether through instrumental colour or vocal embellishment, while largely being based upon the same acoustic foundations as her previous work. Baird is an accomplished finger-style guitarist, and the steady patterns that underpin early highlights I Don’t Mind and Back To You are testament to this.
Vocally, she has previously drawn somewhat inevitable comparisons to the likes of Sandy Denny and Shirley Collins, although her voice is in truth closer in sound to Pentangle’s Jacqui McShee or Celia Humphris of the markedly less renowned Trees. But such comparisons miss their mark, particularly here, as Baird’s sound, though rooted in folk, always tilts more to the West Coast than fair Albion, more It’s A Beautiful Day than Fotheringay (so more like Fairport Convention’s Byrdsian 1968 début, if there must be a Brit-folk comparison).
There are electric reminders of this scattered throughout, whether it’s the shimmering tremelo layered over Mosquito Hawks, the submerged and reverb-heavy bends and slides of the opening Counterfeiters or Charles Saufley’s swirling, ringing 12-string parts on the up-tempo Good Directions, perhaps the nearest that her solo work has strayed to the psychedelic sounds of her former band. As captivating as the simpler songs are, some of the album’s highlights come when Baird steps outside of the more isolated, soloistic style. The best example of this comes after the piano-led ballad Past Houses. The striking, wordless Leaving Song, 65 seconds of Meg multi-layering her own voice, recalls the dissonant harmonies of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, or at least as interpreted by Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser. It seems to stand alone, a palate-cleansing side two track one, until the penultimate Even The Walls Don’t Want You To Go, where the vocals of Leaving Song are revived as backing vocals at the song’s glorious conclusion. It’s a moment of exquisite, cyclical beauty and would possibly have made a more fitting final track than the instrumental reprisal of Past Houses, which in comparison feels like something of an afterthought.
Don’t Weigh Down The Light certainly rewards repeated listening: these may be songs of the fear of leaving, or of being left alone, but there is always a comforting glow visible through the gloom: “And when the night reaches out, I will be there, I don’t mind.” It’s also, by some distance, Baird’s best work to date, and we should hope she finds time to take us further along this dark path: who knows where it might lead.