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Review: Becca Mancari, 'Good Woman'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still

"I want to see growth in wood, time in stone, nature in a city," the sculptor and photographer Andy Goldsworthy has said of his ephemeral works – giant snowballs that slowly melt on the streets of London; leaves formed into a spiral pattern, undone one by one by a river current. Goldsworthy is a naturalist whose work reminds us that life is a cycle of growth and decay.

Can music do the same? On her debut album, Good Woman, Nashville musician Becca Mancari stretches the singer-songwriter's storytelling form to do something similar, and profound.

Mancari's approach is subtly different those of her Nashville songwriting peers, including Jesse Lafser and Brittany A. Howard, her friends in the trio Bermuda Triangle. She tracks the seemingly incidental shifts within relationships – including one's relationship with oneself – in spare, poetic lyrics that often use repetition to establish a sense of interiority. "Dirty dishes, dirty thoughts," she murmurs, her voice waning and waxing, in the song of that name, about the inability to forget an ex-lover, invoking a solitary chore-doer trying to scrub out her obsessions. In the playful "Waiting So Long"—a love song that also works as a coming-out anthem – the title phrase turns into a question and tumbles over on itself in a playful seduction, punctuated by another exhortation: "Why you living in the dark?" In other songs, Mancari's words flesh out her stories more clearly, but still use fragments and glanced details to create a sense of life unfolding through accidental encounters and barely noticed shifts in the landscape. Mancari's writing is never casual; she takes care in connecting the dots in her imagistic verses, reinforcing her focus on life unfolding.

Her main tool is the sound she builds so beautifully with her band, which includes the sensitive and artful guitarists Juan Solorzano and Blake Reams (on pedal steel), and with the sensitive producer Kyle Ryan. At first listen, it's not divorced from what many atmospheric, roots-aware, Neil Young-indebted indie rock bands are doing these days; Hiss Golden Messenger, Big Thief and The War on Drugs come to mind. Mancari is distinctly careful with this approach, however, modulating the builds and retreats in her songs, consistently guiding her band toward subtle choices and useful restraint. Her voice, sometimes feminine and sometimes echoing beyond easy gender categories, is the voice of a quiet observer coming to realizations that matter. Some of the songs on Good Woman are joyful and jangly, others moody, but they always exude exquisite self-awareness.

"We ARE nature," Andy Goldsworthy famously said, elaborating upon the intimacy he feels with the ephemeral materials he uses. Mancari's music has a pastoral quality that feels similarly connected to the tides, to wind patterns, as well as to the ungovernable shifts within people's hearts. "There you are turning golden right there in front of me," she sings of an ex-lover, still beautiful. It's a magical sight, yet somehow one that feels so real.

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