Don’t Weigh Down the Light (Drag City)
It is 104 degrees today, and I have no plans to leave my cool, air-conditioned apartment anytime soon. All I want to do is lie directly next to the fan and listen to music that doesn’t rile me up. Like Meg Baird, I am a San Francisco transplant (although from rather than to). When I first put on Baird’s newest record, Don’t Weigh Down the Light, I felt transported to much cooler summer days spent wandering Haight Street, meandering through Golden Gate Park, and arriving at the foggy beach.
Meg Baird’s music has been compared to that of British folksinger Shirley Collins, and for good reason. Her mellow guitar playing and diverse range of vocals is certainly reminiscent of her minimalist predecessor. However, her newest release, Don’t Weigh Down the Light, feels much more orchestrated and produced than both Collins’ music and any of her own previous records. In fact, she sounds less derivative of British folk and more assertive, more like herself. While many of her previous albums hearken back to another time, Baird’s latest effort sounds much more modern. And, although Baird’s latest effort is wrought with a panoply of instruments, it never feels too embellished or overly done.
Baird has collaborated with such talents as Kurt Vile, Will Oldham (of Bonnie “Prince” Billy), and Sharon Van Etten, but she has never seemed as if she were a part of that neo-folk scene. Instead, she has always seemed like a transplant from a different decade—almost like an outlier amongst her peers. Her recent affinity for a more modern sound could be due, in part, to the other instruments on the album. On a song like opening track “Counterfeiters,” for example, her voice shares the limelight with both her own mesmerizing finger picking and Charlie Saufley’s nearly-vocal electric guitar.
“Counterfeiters” begins with the acoustic guitar, so artfully understated and calm that it would fit perfectly on a meditation album, nestled sweetly between the sounds of rain and the rolling waves of the ocean. Instead of drowning out the calm, like one might think, the electric guitar’s subtle yet distinct whine adds to the mystical environment. Saufley plays a similar role on the second track, a song called “I Don’t Mind.” He never fades into the background, though. Instead, his guitar soars alongside Baird’s voice and her own guitar playing, creating a calm and wistful trio. Again, his presence makes it apparent that this is no longer a throwback to Baird’s Appalachian and British folk influences.
This shift in gears is especially apparent on a song like “Good Direction.” Although Baird’s vocals still reign supreme, her guitar playing is nearly vocal itself, making the two instruments a perfect pair. Baird’s talent is particularly undeniable on this album. It feels as if she took the best parts of all her musical endeavors and found a way to blend them together. The influence of her previous band, neo-folk group Espers, for example, is not hard to miss in the layered instrumentation, including string arrangements and reverberating electric guitar, effects that lend to a floating, almost psychedelic feel. Although I love her more instrumental and collaborative tracks, her more stripped down songs—songs like “Mosquito Hawks” and “Back to You”—are welcome interludes.
This combination of old and new, psychedelic and traditional, calls to mind a different era and a different place: perhaps summer of ’69 Golden Gate Park or even Simon and Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. If I close my eyes and focus hard enough, I can pretend I’m not stuck in the middle of the country during a heat wave. I can imagine, instead, that I’m walking through Golden Gate Park, arriving onto my favorite city block: the fog-wrapped west end of Haight Street where Amoeba Records sits.
The sixth track on the album, “Leaving Song,” is only ten seconds long, but it is arguably one of the album’s most important tracks. It sounds like something that should be played in a cathedral as both a meditation and a call to the heavens. Although Baird’s vocals are varied and impressive throughout the album, this short track acts as a testament to her skills as a singer. You can hear similarly sublime vocals throughout “Even the Walls.” The latter track, however, is less bare bones. In fact, it sounds near orchestral, as though Baird and her partner Saufley weren’t the only ones in the room.
Her lyrics tend to blend together, but it isn’t a turn-off. Instead, it feels intentional; Don’t Weigh Down the Light is more about the feeling than the words. The listener doesn’t need to understand every lyric to feel pleasantly placated—almost tranquilized—by her music. Shirley Collins purportedly said, “I like music to be fairly straightforward, simply embellished—the performance without histrionics allowing you to think about the song rather than telling you what to think.” If any album could be described as a “performance without histrionics,” it’s this one.
The last two songs, “Even the Walls Don’t Want You to Go” and “Past Houses (reprise)” feel like one song, as they nearly blend into each other. The harmonies on both songs symbolize an end, which is perfect to conclude what Drag City, Baird’s label, calls a “leaving album.” Additionally, the slow guitar and piano at the end of the final song almost seem to represent how it feels when you’re falling asleep—a pleasant, floating sensation. Don’t Weigh Down the Light is not a perfect album, but it’s perfect for certain situations. It is the exact right album for those dreary, rainy days when you can indulge in your sadness or your comfort. It is the ideal companion for those of you lucky enough to live in locations that are cool enough during the summer to enjoy spending time outside. The rest of us will just have to turn the A/C on, close our eyes, and let Baird do the rest.