It was not hard to harbor a bit of trepidation prior to the release of Heather Maloney’s third record, simply titled Heather Maloney. It was first on a label, Northampton’s Signature Sounds, home of artists such as Josh Ritter, Peter Mulvey, and Erin McKeown; would that mean a turn towards more straight folk, rather than the wonderfully eclectic mixed bag of her earlier music? And of course, it was the follow-up to her absolutely sensational 2011 album Time and Pocket Change, which is a tough act for anyone to follow. Somehow, however, Heather Maloney manages to beat its predecessor at its own game. All of the artistry, flawless musicianship, and playfulness of Time and Pocket Change is here, only it sounds more polished, and she adds a level of introspection missing from her previous records (which were so good you didn’t notice it was missing).
The amazingly catchy “Great Imposter” kicks off the album, a toe-tapping good time with a funky bass riff and banjo. The great, upbeat vibe continues on “Hey Broken,” which starts a capella before drums and piano join in on the fun. Maloney’s versatility then begins to shine on “Fire For You,” a wonderful acoustic jazz number that illustrates her chameleon-like voice.
Let’s talk about that voice for a second – without a voice like Maloney’s, the wonderful variation in the music might not work. The slow, jazzy “Fire For You” is as different in tone and vibe from a wonderful upbeat folk number like “Flutter” as it is from the Regina Spektor-esque “Grace,” which begins with a singing of “Amazing Grace” by the Young At Heart Chorus, a choral group whose minimum age is 73. In the hands of the wrong artist it could all come off as gimmicky, but with Maloney (and help from musician/producer Ken Maiuri) it works perfectly. A stomping, country rocker like “Iron Bull” is followed by “Turn Yourself Around,” which fools you into thinking it’s a sweet little mandolin-laced number before it slowly builds and blossoms. Rather than the twists and turns catching you off-guard, they feel a great ride in a late model car, and you want to keep the ride going.
The highlight of the record is one of its quietest, and one of the most personal that Maloney has yet written. “Dirt and Stardust” is damn near a perfect song, a wonderful acoustic personal exposition about love and death that sounds like it was written by someone twice Maloney’s age. “I don’t want colors that don’t fade away / and petals open to the sun and then they wilt when they’re all done / so please don’t put silk flowers on my grave,” she sings over a gradually building drum and electric guitar backing in which her voice gets increasingly stronger. “Dirt and Stardust” is one of those songs that we’ll be seeing street musicians and famous folkies singing in the future – we can only hope they’ll introduce it by saying “here’s one everyone knows” rather than “here’s someone who more people should know about.” If her career continues its current trajectory, it will most certainly be the latter.