Release Date: Nov 12, 2013
Record label: Fire
Genre(s): Folk, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Singer/Songwriter, Indie Folk
Josephine Foster often seems somewhere between an eccentric mystic, twisting her voice around an idea and lifting it off into the stratosphere, and a certain kind of gutsy formalist, interested in tackling musical styles from past lives and traditions, in her own way. Tradition-wise, on I’m a Dreamer she’s partly drawing from country music and partly from Tin Pan Alley; mostly from their intersection, which is a more natural one than you might think. From the latter angle comes some vaudeville piano, a couple songs that could have been written for the stage – for example, titles like “Sugarpie I’m Not the Same” and “This Is Where the Dreams Head, Maude”—and an album-closing cover of “Cabin in the Sky”, from the 1940 musical of the same name (“We will be / oh so gay / eat fried chicken every day / as the angels go sailing by”).
Following a fragmented collection of songs based on Emily Dickinson poems then two Spanish-language albums made with her husband, ghostly American folkist Josephine Foster delivered ‘conventional’ album ‘Blood Rushing’ last year. Scare quotes are necessary because Foster’s hand-cranked wyrd-folk is scarcely ‘conventional’ by most standards. But ‘I’m A Dreamer’ is another stellar effort, perhaps a career high: recorded in Nashville with several session hands, it largely avoids the town’s country legacy.
Over the course of the past decade, Colorado-based Josephine Foster has always defied easy pigeonholing, her albums variously based on interpretations of Lorca and Emily Dickinson poems, 19th-century German lieder or Spanish folk songs. Her eighth solo album is perhaps her most straightforwardly accessible, recorded in Nashville with a band that backs her distinctive soaring vocals with shrewdly judged, sparse instrumentation – piano, double bass, pedal steel guitar. The results are frequently exquisite, most notably the morbidly compelling Amuse a Muse ("She's liable to decay/Her flesh will rot away from disuse"), and at times sound as if they've been beamed in from a different, more unhurried era.
Who would have thought that after the winding, labyrinthine musical journey singer and songwriter Josephine Foster has been on since her 2005 debut, Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You, she'd eventually make her way back to writing and recording in the Americana vein? There have been albums of children's songs, the poems of Emily Dickinson, neo-psychedelia, Spanish folk songs of the Anda Jaleo, and a rock-ballet chanté. I'm a Dreamer was recorded in Nashville with the truly gifted pianist Micah Hulscher and a host of players including husband Victor Herrero, Chris Scruggs, and Tommy Perkinson. Foster wrote all but one song, the closer, a gorgeous cover of Vernon Duke's standard "Cabin in the Sky" (revisioned as a parlor song).
It is fair to say that Josephine Foster’s career to date is nothing if not varied. She appears to be most at home when working on something with a theme, whether that might be writing songs based on the poems of Emily Dickinson, children’s songs or channeling traditional Spanish tunes. I’m A Dreamer however, does not appear to revolve around a central conceit beyond that of simply being a collection of wonderfully evocative songs.
In terms of her voice, Josephine Foster has a rare and pretty unique timbre. It is as distinctive as someone like, say, Karen Dalton, and with a technical aptitude that testifies to her training and former life as a singing teacher. There are few of Foster's contemporaries who are able to voice a song in such a striking and idiosyncratic manner, and it is borne out in the spate of enthralling albums that she has released in recent years.
Having found a refreshed sense of warmth and accessibility – without sacrificing her non-conformity – on last year’s blissful Blood Rushing, Josephine Foster has wasted little time in extending her current purple patch. So after two essential reissues (a lost album from her formative duo The Children’s Hour and her sublime solo mini-album Little Life) comes another new LP, in the shape of the delightfully antique-sounding I’m A Dreamer. Genre-hopping once again, the album seamlessly moves on from the earthy country-folk of Blood Rushing to affectionately explore a range of musical settings borrowed from the first half of the twentieth century (and perhaps before).
Fans of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire will find something unerringly familiar about the vintage last century sounds of Josephine Foster’s latest, the loftily dubbed I’m a Dreamer. Given to a scholarly approach, Foster’s always been an eclectic and somewhat eccentric artist; her albums have taken her from ukulele songs of Tin Pan Alley to pure psychedelia, with children’s songs and other archival offerings tossed in between. Nevertheless, I’m a Dreamer will likely appeal to only the narrowest audience.