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In the past, D.C. folk musicians have had a hard time finding footing. The city’s coffee shops and bookstores are more likely to host readings with policy wonks than nights with singer-songwriters, and our most noteworthy concert in the park has more punk guitars than banjos and ukulele.
But the D.C. folk scene is vibrant and growing, home to even more forward-thinking artists than when longtime D.C. indie-folk fixture the Sweater Set started making music. And tucked at the top of this year’s Fort Reno schedule (which also featured more folk than in recent years) was Sara Curtin, one half of the veteran duo. After a stint in Brooklyn spent working as a fishmonger, getting her heart broken, and writing her 2010 solo EP Fly Her And Keep Her, Curtin’s back in town on the heels of her newest record, Michigan Lilium, recorded in her D.C. apartment.
On the album, Curtin ditches the twee inclinations of her previous work for grown-up pop, a graceful artistic statement that doesn’t stray too far from her roots.
Fans of the Sweater Set and Curtin’s earlier work will note Michigan Lilium’s display of the singer-guitarist’s steadily maturing musical tastes. The album swaps out the more quirky instrumentals of her past recordings and doubles down on the basics—guitars, keys, and shuffling percussion, smattered with faint electronic influences—anchored by a radiant voice.
At times, Curtin hints at more out-of-the-box urges, particularly on Michigan Lilium’s bookending tracks: an opening pair of fragile-as-glass songs that play with chilly synths and artificial drumbeats, and a closing track (“The Easy Way”) brimming with looped harmonies.
But Curtin never quite shakes her folk inclinations—acoustic guitar strums, an ever-present tambourine, hyper-romantic imagery. On the album’s middle tracks, Curtin settles into familiar territory with downbeat adult-contemporary tunes and folksy, rollicking romps.
Michigan Lilium’s lyrics explore the spectrum of conflicted love, swinging between childlike wonder and grown-up sensuality that invokes nursery rhymes at one turn (on “Old House”: “Hush, hush, hush, don’t say a word/Sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep little bird”) and action-movie heroines at another (on “Careless”: “Sharpened gaze, sharpened knives/Built for battle in disguise/I learned to fight unfairly”).
But even at its gloomiest moments, the record stays unwaveringly pretty, describing its broken hearts with florid metaphors—rotting bouquets, fading perfume, iron chains, and the titular Michigan lilies in gardens of weeds.
As a result, Michigan Lilium can feel one-note, with Curtin’s reliably, disarmingly poetic lyrics and a voice almost distracting in its prettiness. But listeners won’t fault Curtin for failing to experiment with her sound or deviate wildly from her indie-folk norm. Not every record needs to be a three-LP epic that turns genre on its head; sometimes, familiar territory is worth retreading.
Curtin’s new record is a slice of contemporary folk happy to operate within its own modest world, and there’s much for fans to love in its familiar, bittersweet tales of love and loss.
In an interview with American Songwriter, Curtin noted a lyric from Joni Mitchell’s “A Case Of You” as being particularly meaningful to her work: “I remember that time you told me, you said, ‘Love is touching souls’/Surely you touched mine ’cause part of you pours out of me in these lines from time to time.”
Mitchell’s ’70s peak is a clear influence on Michigan Lilium, and many folk fans will find similar elements in the two singers’ work: melancholy lyrics, pared-down guitars and piano, vocals heavy with vibrato. But for all of Michigan Lilium’s graceful charm, Mitchell always said more in her restraint—pouring her feelings out “from time to time,” after all—than in any formulaic romantic poetry.
Michigan Lilium is Curtin’s most elegantly crafted work yet, but there’s a lesson or two about simple, meaningful songwriting she could glean from Mitchell’s spiritual mentorship. And if Curtin is anything like Michigan Lilium’s namesake—a Midwestern lily she described as notoriously, stubbornly resilient—we’ll be hearing the results on her next record.
Curtin plays Aug. 6 at the Rock & Roll Hotel.