There are certain reviews where I wish I could forgo the background context and just dive straight into the music, especially when the artist in question I’m discussing is a welcome surprise who reminds me why I enjoy writing about music in the first place.
Obviously, that’s a loaded statement I’m now forced to unpack, but it’s a bit trickier this time around, if only because Oregon-based Margo Cilker sort of came out of nowhere for me. I know I’m not the only one, either. For context, she’s been active for several years now as an independent country singer/songwriter, but her few scattered EPs and standalone singles are Bandcamp exclusives, and trying to properly pinpoint an artistic trajectory from those releases is even trickier anyway. But if we’re looking for where the real conversation starts and why tons of critics and fans have been recommending her as a name to watch in 2021, it’s because of the hype surrounding her more properly established debut album on Fluff and Gravy Records, Pohorylle.
Now, I admit I didn’t initially know what to think beforehand going into the project cold; seeing praise from outlets like NPR and Pitchfork, of all places, did, admittedly, leave me a bit skeptical thinking this was going to be a very agreeable but predictable slice of Americana. But in a year that’s been filled with plenty of exciting new surprises and names to watch, I wanted to keep an open mind … and wow, I know I’m just preaching to the choir at this point and echoing plenty of other sentiments – and I thought for sure Emily Scott Robinson and Charles Wesley Godwin would make the final albums of the year to really blow me away – but if you need a bandwagon to get onboard, like, yesterday, Pohorylle is absolutely a worthy one.
The thing is, answering “why” should be so much easier than it really is, because it’s an independent country album. I should just be able to point to the songwriting and leave it at that. But, I think it’s important to establish further context with lyrics and themes here, because while Cilker is a bleak storyteller with an insane eye for detail and able to add a real sense of emotional pathos and urgency to her work, this isn’t an album that’s necessarily straightforward in its approach. She essentially described this album as a collection of memories from her time touring out on the road (which, while perhaps a premature arc for a debut project, can work, if done right), and you can tell in a lot of the ways these stories are sketched as loose snapshots or ideas with even looser framing devices, where the main point may come through in a notable line or two and can easily be missed if one isn’t paying attention.
And while that did, admittedly, strike me upon first listen more as flaw than feature and indicative of writing that could feel a bit undercooked, there’s a few reasons why it connects regardless. For one, the looser style makes more sense for a debut, mostly because Cilker often tries to sift through hazy memories here from her first few years on the road to find a sense of place for both her and her art; find what you truly want to say or contribute to the world, in other words. And while that’s a heavy question for artists that may not truly come until years down the road with more time and experience, if at all, it’s way more compelling here. There’s two tracks where that theme really coalescences into something more, the first being “Barbed Wire (Belly Crawl),” where she’s split between answering who she wants to be as a person and what she wants to say as an artist and finds that they’re sometimes completely different pursuits. The second one is the closer and album highlight, “Wine in the World.” I mean, beyond just being a terrific slow-burn courtesy of the lingering, drawn-out pedal steel in the low end, it’s also a track where she has to confront how chasing that dream and being gone has already cost her precious time with loved ones back home now gone that she’ll never get back – made all the more harrowing for her by the fact that she’s just getting started as a younger artist.
Granted, it’s also a moment of direct vulnerability that the album doesn’t really seek to achieve otherwise. And honestly, while I do wish we heard more of that here, I get it. The album’s hidden strength, at least to me, comes in confronting the fact that maybe she’s seen a little too much out on the road already and that things have gotten a little too real to properly voice in several three-minute songs, perhaps no better evidenced than in the confrontation with a sexual assault victim on “Broken Arm in Oregon.” So for Cilker to often deflect from her being the main character or subject and instead let the subtleties within ring even louder … again, more feature than flaw, and even more an asset, really.
I think there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the instrumentation and production, too. Upon the first few initial listens, it’s a quaint, mid-tempo slice of Americana-leaning independent country music that’s familiar and borderline tasteful; you’d think you’d see Dave Cobb’s name behind the production credits. Only, the real credit goes to Sera Cahoone, and if there’s a reason why this album has stuck with me all week even beyond the writing, it’s because this is an album that knows how to cultivate atmosphere and a sense of place just on fullness and richness of tone alone. And that’s the thing – it’s a road-weary album marked by its frayed edges of exhaustion. And it wouldn’t have that burnished edge if the performer carrying it wasn’t delivering it herself. Cilker has just enough power to command the mix without needing to raise her voice, only a touch ragged because of time and her having to grow up too fast.
Yet, while the obvious comparisons that come to mind in delivery and presentation are to Lori McKenna, I do want to emphasize that subtlety is the key here. This project isn’t ramshackle in its approach even when it could have gotten away with it – the cutthroat intimacy allows the pianos and gorgeously textured acoustics to carry these melodies and hooks, and there’s usually a firm cushion of violin or pedal steel to propel it even further and provide a sense of atmospheric groove or bite when needed it most. It’s expansive and isolated without sounding weathered or fried, and I think the crystal-clear quality of the recording is what give its an almost windswept-like appeal. It’s easy to get sucked into this album on atmosphere alone.
Take the sweeping, liquid minor swell running across the majority of “Broken Arm in Oregon,” for instance, where the sense of unease is directed toward Cilker herself at first before the aforementioned meet, in which there’s a touch of echoed backing vocals to provide that other perspective, or even just a phenomenal crescendo without taking it too far to heighten the dramatic impact. And then there’s “Flood Plain,” a breakup song in which one partner leaves another to chase their dreams – whatever they may be – and while there’s obvious hurt felt from the one left behind, it’s mostly because she’s just as lost and aimless as her partner, and there’s a happiness found in knowing that at least one of them found the courage to take that next step forward for themselves. And I just love how there’s a sweeping touch of accordion to set the scene of a lonely bar in “Chester’s,” where the mood is a tad more high-spirited but still very isolated in knowing she’s there because close friends have moved on with their own lives while she’s still searching … be it for an artistic and personal epiphany or something equivalent that can make it all feel worth the journey as an artist.
Now, if you’re thinking that this project may be a tad too dark to sink into further based on those descriptions, for one, the project only sports nine songs and a very brisk length that doesn’t waste time. But there are a few moments to break away for a touch of levity in “Kevin Johnson,” “Brother, Taxman, Preacher,” and the kiss-off of “Tehachapi.” They’re also the few moments here that feel kind of awkward and stiff in the mix overall, and I get that finding the correct tonal balance can be difficult when placed against cuts like “Broken Arm in Oregon” or “Barbed Wire (Belly Crawl).” Even still, while I like using humor to confront her jealousy in wishing she had all the answers to fuel her art on “Brother, Taxman, Preacher,” it’s also one moment I feel could have been serviced better by aiming darker and giving the album a real anchoring point in comforting it head-on, especially right before “Wine in the World.” Again, I get using deflection as a coping mechanism, but if there’s a throwaway cut, it’s this one. And while I like the Little Feat reference in “Tehachapi” – not just the direct one, but the other slyly hidden one that I shall not spoil – the sunnier tones just feel a bit out of place as a whole for the tune and project as a whole.
Granted, I get that those criticisms amount to wishing a darker project had aimed darker, but there’s enough subtle variation in tempo and presentation to keep it from bleeding together or going too far regardless. If anything, the optimism and hope of finding that fulfillment is what helps end this album on more of a positive note, and you’d be surprised by just how well most of these acoustic melodies and hooks stick with you long afterward. All of that is to say … folks, I wasn’t prepared to make this album or review a priority, but I am absolutely glad I did. Pohorylle is a stunning, beautifully produced and wonderfully delivered project that, if anything, already places Cilker in a league that defies her age and deserves even more attention. If anything, it’s an album you play when you want to take your own drive across the country, be it to enjoy the scenery around and perhaps notice the people – the characters – around you … or to do a little bit of soul-searching. Considering this is just the first step, too, I can’t wait to hear where Cilker’s own journey takes her next.
- Favorite tracks: “Broken Arm in Oregon,” “Barbed Wire (Belly Crawl),” “Wine in the World,” “That River,” “Flood Plain,” “Chester’s”
- Least favorite track: “Brother, Taxman, Preacher”