Sleep, dreams and reveries predominate in Anne Malin’s Waiting Song, a deeply personal and quirky album of country-tinged indie folk rock. Anne Malin is a musical duo of the poet, singer and songwriter AM Ringwalt and multi-instrumentalist William Johnson. On this, Ringwalt’s fourth album, they plumb the sense of isolation and claustrophobia we’re all experiencing in this year of pandemic, as they continually try to move toward the ever-retreating mirage of hopefulness, envisioned in several of these songs as a garden.
“Avant Americana” is what iTunes says is this music’s genre, and that’s a pretty apt description. These songs make the most of Ringwalt’s unique vocal style, a soprano that’s full of quavers and colors, her diction reflecting a life in the South and Midwest, her lyrics an impressionistic, allusive poetry. Since their previous album, 2018’s Fog Area, the duo has relocated to Nashville, and Johnson’s arrangements, heavy with pedal steel and other twanging electric guitars as well as various organs, all often played through a wobbling Leslie cabinet, seem to place this music in some other-dimensional Music City.
Highlights are the opening track “Empty Is The Day,” “Child,” the title track, and the closer “Hourglass.” In “Empty,” Ringwalt paints a picture of languid days, her quavering vocals echoed by the quaver of organ and pedal steel. All of these songs are deeply atmospheric, and this is a good intro to them.
“Waiting Song” is at base a lilting parlor ballad, about enforced stillness like we’ve all experienced this year. Its major backing instrument is the piano, but it’s been augmented, post-modernized, by a deeply distorted psychedelic electric guitar line, the tension between those two instruments portraying our inner conflicted state. “Not knowing what the earth will bring, not knowing what a bird will sing, I’ll stand by the window, oh I’ll stand by the window, yes I’ll stand by the window and think a waiting song.” We’ve all been there, right? As I write this, I’ve been living almost entirely indoors for more than a week due to hazardous levels of smoke from wildfires all around the region where I live, so this one speaks to me in particular.
“Child” is a chugging indie rocker that calls to mind early Angel Olson with its mix of gospel, art song and country-rock. In it she connects to her memories of childhood. Here’s what she says about it: “When I wrote ‘Child,’ I was trying to elevate mundane things I do—wearing cheap vintage nightgowns, drinking chamomile tea—to an almost mythical status. For some reason, I felt a kind freedom or playfulness from that mythic place, so I was able to connect lyrics about my childhood to the woman I am today. There’s a kind of saturated, celebratory, carefree quality to the way Will and I produced this song—that’s the kind of energy I want to send back to my younger self.” They’ve given this one a long fadeout of a dreamlike soundscape that emphasizes the dreaminess of the lyrics.
“Hourglass,” a plodding country shuffle, taps the alt-Nashville vibe even more with lilting organ, Hawaiian-style pedal steel licks, and buzzing static. Again, the production is key to understanding the song, as Ringwalt portrays the drifting feeling of time slipping by during the pandemic: “somewhere an hourglass stands at night / sand slips by in the moonlight.”
Arrangements and production are endlessly engaging. In the lullaby titled “Sleep,” her vocals are buried in the mix, which includes a gorgeous baritone guitar, shimmering pedal steel and hazy electronics. The snapping hi-hat is pushed to the very front of the mix in the portentous rocker “What Brings My Eyes Open,” about waking in a panic from … probably dreams about a certain virus. Images of death, dying, ghosts and memories form the soporific verses in “Pearly Sleigh,” punctuated by brief choruses introduced by the harsh rasp of distorted guitar chords. “Mountain Song” is even darker, Ringwalt intoning verses of beat-like poetry over a dreamlike backing of dissonant guitar squall.
Pandemic, political upheaval and escalating climate crises seem to be inspiring a lot of wildly creative and ear-catching music this year. Anne Malin’s Waiting Song has to be among the more enigmatic yet emblematic offerings of 2020. Recommended for fans of very indie folk and rock, like Nick Cave, Weyes Blood, Phosphorescent, Lucinda Williams, Scout Niblett, Michael Hurley, Bonnie “Prince” Billy.