Through the tornado of the Whiskeytown phenomenon, a musician stood calmly in the eye Catilin Cary, one of only two members of the outfit besides Ryan Adams himself to remain standing at the end of that roadhouse punch-up. Her pure vocal harmonies and lilting fiddle lines added a brushstroke of beauty to the gallery's worth of raw-action painting that poured from the music of the irrepressible Adams.
In the two years since Adams has taken to magazine spreads and near rock-star status, Cary has gladly taken to a more domestic existence: a house, a husband (former Whiskeytown drummer Skillet Gilmore), and a couple of dogs. But that doesn't mean she's put down the fiddle or stopped writing the songs she began penning with Whiskeytown guitarist Mike Daly during the lean years of endless touring behind Adams. Taking inspiration to step out of the shadows from watching Gillian Welch and Sheryl Crow on the live-music PBS program "Sessions at West 54th," Cary called up producer/musician Chris Stamey (the dBs) to plan some tracking at his North Carolina studio, Modern Recording. The resulting EP, Waltzie, garnered much critical praise for its unexpectedly stripped-down, Celtic-tinged folk flavor.
What followed is While You Weren't Looking, a full-length record with more variety in sound and instrumentation, as well as more lyrical depth. Beyond a basic band set-up, Cary and Stamey add flourishes with an eclectic batch of instruments including various kinds of organs and synths, as well as horns, pedal steel, dobro, glockenspiel, and an actual skillet (not to be confused with the drumwork of her husband of the same name).
Still, Cary's gorgeous, pure alto voice sets the defining tone for While You Weren't Looking on the first track, "Shallow Heart, Shallow Water," a mournful tune about missed chances for love. Cary's is a voice that deftly inspires in the listener the very emotion that's evoked by whatever melody she takes on. She lets forth with pure tone, not a whit of grit, a kind of soft strength I attribute to the likes of Aimee Mann.
The easy solidity of every rich song comes from a long-standing relationship between Cary and her fellow players, including former Whiskeytowner Mike Santero (bass), as well as the aforementioned Gilmore and Daly. Also contributing are Mayflies USA's Adam Price, Superchunk's Jon Wurster, the iconic Mitch Easter, and even more fellow Caroliners and friends. The advice-to-the-lovelorn song "Please Don't Hurry Your Heart" adds Ryan Adams' songwriting chops to Cary and Daly's, to great effect. The tune evokes the overall atmosphere of the album: focused, emotive, and heartstring-pulling simplicity, with a humid Southern cast. Conversely, the song "Hold On to Me" alternates hyper, 2/4 verses with a floating waltz-time chorus, pregnant with vocal harmonies.
Cary's lyrics address many aspects of love, lost and found. She uses the metaphor of a summer's end to describe a crumbling love affair in the appropriately named "The Fair": "What would you do if they canceled the fair/ 'cause the weather's turned hot/ The air conditioner's shot/ No one can tell you what to do."
This lovely record makes me want to turn up the volume, open the windows, and sit on the front porch with some friends and a rack of cold cans, sweating out the frustrations of the day and counting the fireflies. Smell that honeysuckle.