The short version: Dori Freeman brightens the edges of her work to deliver her most accessible album to date, yet also one where her sharp writing is still at the forefront of the conversation.
- Favorite tracks: “All I Ever Wanted,” “I’ll Be Coming Home,” “2 Step,” “Darlin’ Boy,” “Go On”
- Least favorite track: “Walls Of Me And You”
- Rating: 8/10
The long version: I think we take Dori Freeman for granted.
Of course, I do understand, to some extent, why she gets overlooked, even in independent country circles; she’s never relied on an image or marketing to deliver her material, and when it does come down to said material, it’s the kind of great music that’s more subtle than outright jumps out at the listener.
But when listening to either her self-titled debut record or 2017’s Letters Never Read, it becomes abundantly clear why Freeman receives some of the highest amount of critical acclaim, even if she doesn’t linger on in the conversation afterward. Now, I did have some reservations going into her newest album, Every Single Star. Reportedly centered around her daughter, Osa, and said to be more electric guitar-driven than past records, I had some concerns that brightening up the edges might shift the focus away from either Freeman or the songs themselves.
Yet, for those who are aware of what Freeman is capable of, Every Single Star is, simply put, another great project from her, featuring the same kind of organic, textured country music with a sharp edge to the writing and a wonderful interpreter in Freeman herself. Yet I will say it’s a shade weaker than her past two projects, not featuring the same consistent focus or daring highlights, even if it’s still a great project in its own right.
If anything, too, this is certainly a different project for Freeman. Whereas past projects found her adopting a world-weariness with enough rough character to highlight a maturity and wisdom beyond her years, the focus is still there; it’s just shifted toward something brighter. That’s not to say those dark moments don’t fluctuate, but most of Every Single Star finds Freeman moving past her aforementioned troubles to focus on the joys (and struggles) of motherhood, featuring the kind of joy we’ve never heard from her before on “Like I Do,” but also balancing out with tougher moments of sadness and longing to be with her daughter on “That’s How I Feel” and “I’ll Be Coming Home.”
And when Freeman, vocally, is a primary asset as to why her material resonates as much as it does, it helps that the vocal production once again is presented in a way that’s intimate enough to give her the spotlight, yet spacious enough to highlight the emotions that underscore the actual content, even going for more of a live vocal on tracks like “Walls Of Me and You.”
The biggest difference, however, comes through in the production and instrumentation, yet it’s still not as drastic of a difference as one may think. No, there are no a capella tracks this time around, and even some of the folk-driven edges of her past work have been sanded away for sharper electric guitar-driven grooves and melodies, but it’s still the same rich, organic and beautifully nuanced kind of country music one would expect from Freeman. In fact, I’ve always hesitated calling her work “traditional country,” if only because, beyond transcending the weathered throwback production of, say, a Dave Cobb project, producer Teddy Thompson is able to make this sound like a simply pure country project that’s timeless in scope. Sure, there are some conventional chord progressions that show up in the guitar lines, but it’s the accent marks that give them a ton of flavor. Even the drums and percussion lines have a punch to them that lend nicely to the delivery of the hooks, especially on “That’s How I Feel” and “Another Time.” And when the barroom piano shows up on “Darlin’ Boy” or “2 Step,” it only highlights the cold tension between the two lovers in that setting on the latter track, yet also is warm enough to suggest that they’re going to fall for each other, even when they shouldn’t. The songs are rich and vibrant, even if, despite the added flourishes, the songs never rise much above mid-tempo; yet “Like I Do” does carry a fairly potent, sizzling groove.
Now, a consistently easy criticism for Freeman projects is that, due to the tempo and instrumental selection, her albums can start to run together. On this album, while the songs themselves are good, individually, without the usual added variety of past projects, that criticism rings very true here, and some songs don’t stand out as much as they could. However, this also all goes back to Freeman’s best work having a quiet subtlety about it in the tones to keep them distinct. Still, if there’s one track that feels like a missed opportunity, it’s “Walls Of Me and You,” which carries a darker image of alcohol abuse from a former lover that takes its toll on Freeman, and yet the tones feel too bright and underplayed to sell it more effectively, especially when she already has “That’s All Right” from Letters Never Read going for that same theme much better.
On that topic, though, Every Single Star seems to be caught in two different worlds, with one side grounded firmly in closing the door on the darker remnants of Freeman’s past, and the other focused solely on raising her daughter with those lessons learned. Now, at only ten tracks, that aforementioned criticism of things running together might come up for certain listeners, though I’d argue there’s enough subtle difference in the framing to let these tracks shine with their own personality. “Like I Do” is a little more bare-bones and straight to the point in Freeman’s love letter to her daughter, but it’s also sold with a frank, undermining sadness that speaks more to the subtext of knowing she can’t always be there for her, hence her pouring out her regrets of having to leave for the road on “I’ll Be Coming Home,” or expressing what that distance does to her on “That’s How I Feel.”
When exploring the other aforementioned perspective, however, when Freeman revisits her past and comments on past relationships, it carries the same frank sharpness that’s always elevated her delivery. Beyond her technical abilities, there’s always been a cold honesty to Freeman’s presentation that’s refreshing and nuanced. The subtext in “Go On” implies she’s tried to help her lover overcome his own demons, but when he’s not much interested in helping himself, the best thing at that point is to let him go, despite the pain that causes both of them. And while there’s something righteous about Freeman putting someone in his place on “All I Ever Wanted” (and what a hook there), it doesn’t come without her questioning her own implications and actions in these relationships in “Another Time” and “2 Step.”
But with Every Single Star, this is also treading familiar ground for Freeman, and while the songs are nonetheless sharp in execution, they are lacking in comparison to past songs of hers, at points. “That’s How I Feel” carries some strong imagery to get Freeman’s point across, but it’s delivered in a lazier list-style format that starts to wear thin after awhile. “Walls Of Me And You” and “You Lie There” both step into discussions of alcohol abuse and depression, respectively, but they feel too broadly sketched, lacking the intimate details to give them a more distinctive edge and tie them back to Freeman.
As it is, though, while Every Single Star is a shade weaker than past Freeman projects, this is still the kind of beautifully textured, understated, subtle kind of country music that’s easy to appreciate. And even if I do miss some of the darker edges that mark her best work, it’s also nice to hear Freeman in a better place today, even if living the life of a musician still means not having enough time with her daughter. In other words, this is still an album that can cut deep, and considering this may be her most accessible album to date, now is as good of a time as any to listen to one of the brightest talents in independent country music working today.