Maggie Carson Deeply Connects Appalachia To Modern Folk On ‘The Dark Was Aglow’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

The law of conservation of energy proposes that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it can only be transformed or transferred from one form to another. While the law is still holding true in the complexities of modern Quantum Theory today, it’s also an almost instinctual feeling we have while wandering through this world as human beings. Variations of this thought have been recorded as early as the 4th century BCE when Greek philosopher Empedocles wrote that “nothing comes to be or perishes”. Maggie Carson’s debut solo album, The Dark Was Aglow, encapsulates this theme throughout with cerebral storytelling and the constant presence of American folk music that, through the generations, continues to take on new forms like a living past deeply intertwined with the present.

The album’s perfectly placed opening track, “Your Ghost”, immediately puts on display some of the most fundamental characteristics of the album as a whole. It’s a song with deep connections to traditional Appalachian music showcasing Carson’s unmistakable, earnest vocals and uniquely blended banjo style.  As the rest of the band slowly makes their presence known, rolling in like fog on the Rockaways, it becomes clear The Dark Was Aglow has aspirations reaching past traditional folk music both sonically and lyrically. 

One of the most endearing traits of the album is that the banjo never takes a backseat to an acoustic or electric guitar but instead takes on those roles in a way that can allow somewhat traditional formats to take on a new identity, like on the surf-rock inspired “What You Want”. The second track, “From Here to Anywhere”, clearly highlights this as well, taking on a pop structure inspired by female vocalists of the late 50’s/60’s with the banjo in the lead and once again displaying the powerful vocal style Carson worked to develop during the decade she spent recording and touring with Spirit Family Reunion. 

The thoughtful pacing of the album continues as it winds down into the charming, Harvest Moon-tinged country shuffle of “In Time”. The slight tremolo on the lightly plucked banjo glides effortlessly over the rich backdrop created by the keys to evoke long drives through the open country just as the day fades to night. “Ask again, question why and how/ In time we’ll know what we don’t know now/ The end’s not writ it’s an open book/ Sing the lyrics and play the hook’, is an easily relatable line suggesting we’re all just in between destinations. 

“Here Among Us” invites listeners on a lilting, dance through a time blending vision of New York City with lines like “Once a forest stood proudly downtown/ Once a river was the loudest sound/ Is it here among us now?” wondering if any part of that long-forgotten wilderness re-invented itself and wove its way into the city we know today. If that’s the case, you can wonder the same thing about songs from long ago or the memories of people who no longer need them, as Carson goes on to do on “Tune Found You”.  It’s a sparse, soulful number filled out with a warbly baritone guitar that adds just the right size pinch of mid-60’s psychedelia to set the stage for metaphysical observations like, “When you came back from afar/ Stories trapped in your guitar/ You set them free.”

Some of the most traditional banjo stylings come on the meditative and reassuring “Waiting”. The vocals and banjo are woven in a melody that’s easy to imagine being sung by Michael Hurley while the band creates a comforting, drone-heavy ethereal welcome for a pregnant friend’s expected baby. As the band slowly fades into a lullaby ending, “Who Put A Name To All This?” emerges to one more time address the interconnectedness between the world we see today and the ideas and energy of the one that came before us. “There’s something we found trailing in tow/ Lamps facing backward shined soft and low/ Songs nearly forgotten yet we all somehow know/ Shadows encroached us but the dark was aglow”, comes off almost as a recap of the experience as the band waltzes slowly away into a seemingly timeless, flickering cavern. 

The Dark Was Aglow” was recorded with Carson’s live band (Tomer Lahav, Bass,Or Zubalsky, Drums Tal Zubalsky, Guitars, Alex Tween, Tack Piano, Hammond, Organ, Rashad Brown,   Piano, and Matt Walsh, Baritone Guitar) in Rockaway Beach, NYC. It was released on Open Ocean, a not-for-profit record label that uses donations to produce and distribute beautiful vinyl records on a gift basis. 

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