Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The cover of this Galax, Virginia singer-songwriter’s delightful debut is both indicative of what’s inside and also somewhat misleading. The black and white photograph of an expressionless Dori Freeman sitting in what seems to be her rustic, modestly adorned house are the epitome of girl-next-door simplicity. And while that does describe the basic rural, classic country of the music inside, it doesn’t prepare you for the pure, sweet, vibrancy of Freeman’s voice or the hypnotic beauty of her songs and melancholy lyrics that capture the essence of human nature, often within the backwoods experience.
The story of how Freeman reached out on a whim on Facebook to Teddy Thompson whom she admired and who immediately signed on to produce this debut makes for good copy. But the easy flowing magnificence of songs, such as the subtle throbbing percussion of “Any Wonder” that mirrors the song’s yearning for a love that has moved away, or the honeyed retro ’60s countrypolitan with reverb guitar of “Fine Fine Fine,” is what you’ll remember.
Freeman entices us with just 10 songs (only one over four minutes) and about a half-hour of music that leaves you wanting more. The clarity of her voice and vision makes — tracks such as “Go On Lovin’” sound like Emmylou Harris singing a Hank Williams Sr. song you never heard before — is presented with frills-free production and a band that knows the notes you don’t play are as important as the ones you do. The disc kicks off with two of its most stripped down folk-country tunes and introduces us to Freeman’s gorgeous vocals and innate sense of melody. But just as we’re getting used to that stark groove, she adds a full band that provides crucial backing throughout the remainder of the program. They bolster “Tell Me”’s retro vibe and bring elegant sorrow to the slow-barroom, waltz-time honky-tonking “Still a Child.”
Perhaps the album’s most riveting moment is its most unadorned. The folk/jazz of “Ain’t Nobody,” accompanied only by Freeman’s skeletal finger snapping, is heavily indebted to the walking bass line of Merle Travis’ classic “16 Tons” perhaps as reimagined by Norah Jones. It tells of various hard laboring individuals doomed to a world of drudgery but trying — seemingly in vain — to work themselves into a better life. Occasionally as on the lovely “Lullaby,” Freeman shifts into Patsy Cline territory with an impressively low key yet sexy vocal that splits the difference between classic country, pop and even jazz.
Give Thompson credit for letting Freeman’s natural talent breathe in these open arrangements. But it’s the singer who remains the star here, nailing every performance with refined charm and making this an early contender for breakout debut of the year.