For a few decades now, the small venues of Downtown New York have kept their doors open late for many an Irish songwriter. Modest rooms like The Scratcher and The Path Café have long been meeting points for wandering musicians and their guitars and in these sessions, strangers will often make for friends, friends will often make for lovers and – every once in a while – two singers will make for a band.
Such is the case with Anthony Mulcahy and Rachel Stern who met through an open mike at The Path Café about a year and a half ago. After connecting on a love of open tuning and Laura Marling, they decided to write some tunes. What resulted is folk-country duo Those Sensible Shoes, whose refreshing self-titled debut was released yesterday.
Recorded by Dan McCloughlin at The Vault in Hoboken, the record is an outdoor slow dance and thankfully avoids the mistakes of many first timers by championing simplicity over indulgence. Sweet harmonies and crisp lyrics are laid cleanly in the studio rather than buried under a mountain of overlay. And the pairing of Waterford-born Mulcahy and New York-born Stern is certainly inspired, more than enough to see you through a rather remarkable introduction.
It starts with sweet plucker ‘June’, setting the tone and pace of the collection. “When time enough still isn’t time enough/The Christmas Lights burn down/Decorations across the yard/It’s early June.” A sophisticated play with opposites and clean images come to mark the collection. We move from the grass to the skies with ‘Stargazers’ and from the summer to the fall with Autumn Leaves’. The album is four dimensional – moving from down to up, from East to West, and through seasons. Mulcahy lays the floorboards with a pick or a strum, which Stern treads lightly upon. Stern’s voice is like glass – sturdy and delicate, almost translucent at times.
The pair show their guts at the middle of the album with ‘The Trick’, a fingers-in-the-dirt track about a discarded prostitute. ‘The Trick’ reaches deep and is the knot that ties both ends of the record together. ‘The Seeds’, is a timely tale about the dangers of immigration and the event of the album – a deft show of musicianship and songwriting: “Now it’s sink or swim/Swallowed up in a second/But there’s room to grow/They didn’t know that we were seeds.” The piece does enough to personalize a tragedy and is especially poignant in lieu of the refugee crisis happening in Europe.
Like their seeds, Those Sensible Shoes have room to grow. There is space for exploration and for musical expansion to match their already expansive storytelling. And like peanut butter and jelly – while delicious on their own – Stern and Mulcahy make more sense together. Solo tracks fade in comparison to the duets and leave you waiting for the other to return.
But all in all it is a beautiful and generous album that many a band would be proud to have in their collection, not to mention as their debut. Those Sensible Shoes have cultivated a singular sound that is all at once romantic and intelligent, all at once December and June. And their first record lovingly describes the in-between places that so many of us call home.
Album art courtesy of Julia Forrest.