Here the Blue River (Little Bliss Records)
For a long time, in my teens and early twenties, I didn’t sleep much. Depressed and insomniac, I’d stay up until two, three, four in the morning unable to drift off, sometimes outright avoiding it. During those late, lonely nights, I’d put on my headphones and zone out to singers with voices at once peaceful and soaring: Vienna Teng, Allison Krauss, Cat Power. In the darkness their songs seemed to expand, their sadness and nostalgia growing larger and filling in the shadowy corners.
Here the Blue River, the sophomore album by singer-songwriter Haroula Rose, feels in keeping with those artists. Rose’s kind, melancholy voice could offer comfort on long nights as she spins delicate tales that seem to drift by on that titular blue river.
Her voice and the stories she tells with it are in finest form in “Songbird,” the album’s opener. Quiet guitar picking pulls the listener into a story of the singer’s discovery of a hurt songbird and her attempt to nurse it back to health before releasing it. The metaphor of the songbird expands in each verse until the song’s speaker is simultaneously addressing the hurt animal and her own pain at the close of a relationship. The refrain of “Who was going to take care of you/who was going to care for you?” shifts ever-so-slightly throughout the song so that it also becomes the question the song’s speaker is asking herself, finally acknowledging that she must care for herself.
It’s a song that risks cliché, reliant as it is on the classic “if you love someone, let them go” storyline, but its concreteness and Rose’s insistent, questioning tone keeps it from feeling overwrought. The intricate layering of guitar, drums, and vocal harmony also makes the song something greater than the sum of its parts, a strong opening to this album.
“Songbird” sets the tone of Here the Blue River as an album primarily concerned with relationships—both with other people and with ourselves—and with building self-sufficiency. The album’s second song, “Margo,” picks up this theme and carries it forward. Its country twang represents an interesting shift in tone, and here, as in “Songbird,” Rose tells a discrete story. Margo is a girl out on her own for the first time, running from something not quite specified. “Your dad, he brought you to the ways of the wild,” the song explains, and “Your mother, she left when you reached a certain height.”
If “Margo” lacks some of the specific details that makes “Songbird” such a strong song, perhaps that stems from the fact that it is inspired by the Bonnie Jo Campbell novel Once Upon a River, for which Rose has written the screenplay and will direct the feature film. To encapsulate a novel in a single song is, to say the least, an ambitious task.
The song’s new music video, however, serves as an anchor of sorts. In it, Margo’s plight is solidified: An abused teenage girl, she lets her alcoholic father die in a fire caused by his own unextinguished cigarette. She then treks across the country until she reaches a picturesque body of water and a slightly older woman, presumably her older, wiser, stronger self—played by Haroula Rose—who takes her hand. The music video closes on a shot of Margo levitating over the water, free from the hardship that has before then anchored her to the world. The video’s burnished beauty, all dazzling sand dunes and luminous abandoned buildings, feels like Rose’s voice in visual form, bright and soft and sunny even when it’s tackling heart-wrenching subject matter.
That’s what Rose does so well in some of the songs on this album: She takes a simple story and turns it into something the listener can hold in the palm of their hand.
Here the Blue River is also at its best when Rose recognizes that her breathy vocals need a more staccato, distinct sound to serve as counterpoint. “Walk Away” opens with a repeated sequence of harmonics on the guitar that evoke the eerie sound of a child’s piano and drill directly at the listener’s heart even as Rose’s voice seems haunted and far away. Rose adds layer after layer as the song continues and expands, broadening the song into new emotional registers. “Sirens” does this even better: For the only time on the album, Rose sounds dismayed, almost angry, as she sings, “Oh, and there’s nothing to feel/so you disappear.”
Unfortunately, much of the album eschews the specificity and emotional complexity that make these songs so strong. Twice, the album shifts into short songs that are just a few chords echoing in sequence for nearly a full minute, marking no clear change in the album’s tone or storyline. And many of the songs, like “The River (Drifting)” and “This Old House” feel like an Instagram filter in song form: The songs are so sun-kissed and soft that they cross the line from sweet to saccharine, though “The River (Drifting)” does eventually end its wandering and begin to play with sound in an interesting way, gathering musical layers and textures and adding metaphors like “I’m as free as a nameless shadow/Who in following somehow lost its way.”
When Rose has a clear story to tell, as in “Songbird,” she is able to build an engaging narrative with smart lyrics, but many of the songs on this album are interested in speaking to the intricacies of relationships in ways that feels pat or unexamined. In “Grass Stains,” Rose sings “Dreaming of/your embrace,/How can I replace/the feeling of your face,” an almost adolescent way of describing the feeling of being far from a lover. The same problem arises in “Moon and Waves,” when she asks “What are these arms built for/ if not to be wrapped around you?” These lines are vague, evoking a bland approximation of romantic-comedy romance rather than actual, real relationships. A more musically complex song could perhaps overcome this reliance on cliché, but these songs leave the listener wanting more.
Some of the songs on Here the Blue River stuck with me for days, their tunes catchy enough and their stories crisp enough for me to carry them forward. But too often, the album left me grasping for more—for songs more clever in their representation of relationships and more complicated in their sound. In “Songbird” and “Sirens” Rose shows the listener what she’s capable of, and I find myself let down that she didn’t pursue that sound further. Perhaps, in future albums, she will.