At first listen, Vermont singer-songwriter Allison Fay Brown’s debut EP Cardinal is a warm and winning collection of folk-rock songs. But the EP boasts depths not immediately apparently skipping over the pleasant sonic surface. Take the title. The word “cardinal” signifies more than the arrival of spring, or the cover’s red lettering. “In astrology, cardinal signs signify the creators, and the beginning of things,” Brown says. “Myself, my mother, and my sister are all cardinal signs of different elemental zodiacs, and I wanted to pay homage to our strong feminine collective.”
Album highlight “Present Tense” tackles a whole host of current problems. Per Brown: “Gun violence, climate change, corporate greed, chronic racism, classism, aggressive political campaigns, media insanity, etc. etc. etc.” That list sounds, on paper, potentially exhausting. But Brown wields a light touch on this gradually crescendoing acoustic ballad. It’s the sort of protest song than can exist equally as a righteous call to action or as pleasant coffee-shop background music.
Elsewhere, opening track “Summit” draws on the Pandora’s box myth to tell a personal story, without entirely spelling it out. Brown sings: “There was a box upon her doorstep / She was too young and too naive / But she opened it ever so slightly / Since then, she ain’t been seen.” Despite the third person, Brown says, the narrator is her: “I spent many years under the illusion that a substance, or a relationship, or a new shiny purchase, or extensive travel, or some other external thing would make me feel better. After living in enough discomfort from my own personal demons, I experienced what I like to call a spiritual awakening.” One needn’t know any of this to enjoy the tune – its catchy melody and rich instrumentation (all played by Fay and folkie friend Eric George) offer appeal aplenty – but the backstory adds new layers.
An unusually assured debut, Allison Fay Brown’s Cardinal is available now at Bandcamp.