MARTHA SCANLAN The West Was Burning (Sugar Hill)

A Minnesotan singer/songwriter and former Reeltime Traveller, “The West Was Burning” is Martha Scanlan’s debut solo album. Plying a ghostly folk/bluegrass/country amalgam, in common with, say, Vashti Bunyan, Scanlan isn’t gifted with a wide vocal palette, but her even-handed, little girl lost voice (a female Neil Young, to an extent) anchors these songs. Former member of The Band Levon Helm is involved in the album to some extent, although the press release is a little shadowy on the specifics. The assembled musicians sound like a group of people playing in a room: the percussion, for example, has an honest, woody, muffled thump that’s very “Music From Big Pink”, and completely different to the shinier soundscapes of, for example, the Jess Klein album reviewed above, which arguably plays to a broadly similar demographic.

“Get Right Church” is reminiscent of Sandy Dillon, albeit without her rusty Tom Waitsian rattle and cough; a sad-eyed, stately cover of Bob Dylan’s “Went To See The Gypsy” is perhaps the album’s highlight. On “Seeds Of The Pine” her voice trembles with a barely perceptible vulnerability that, nevertheless, once heard, suffuses the entire song, and you’d never identify this as a live recording until the applause breaks out at its conclusion. “Set Me Up High” opens the album’s reach a little, with bluesy lyrics and the asthmatic wheeze of dobro. The closing “Ten Thousand Charms”, based on an 18th century hymn, borders on icy, almost claustrophobic in its intimacy.

“The West Was Burning” isn’t a great album: the attention wanders too often during Scanlan’s own songs, and its lack of range and variety will deter many. Nevertheless, it carves its own individual niche in the modern country canon.