While people debate about the accuracy of live music rankings, there’s no denying that Madison has a strong scene with collaboration at its heart. You don’t move to many cities and see such a level of involvement or just simple curiosity in what everyone is doing as you do in Wisconsin’s capitol. It encourages and makes friends move from nervous to comfortable on stages in front of ever growing crowds. It marks a city as exceptional. It’s in this environment that Anna Vogelzang has established herself as keystone in the folk scene, honing her craft by consistently opening for touring musicians when she herself is not on the road. She draws people in with her presence and peppered unexpected moments of hilarious conversations with the crowd. 2012 saw her with a new, far more serious effort in Canary in a Coal Mine recorded on the East Coast with the help of Todd Sickafoose, Franz Nicolay, Emily Hope Price, and Brian Viglione.
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It is safe to say that, while the production is surprising at first, it’s the unforgettable melodies or lyrics that come from “Canary” or “Volcanoes” that keep this album tied so closely to her previous releases, like Secret Cedar Room, or her performances. “Canary” balances in between that restrained cage of live performance, limited to a voice, a banjo and a cello and complete multitrack freedom, which comes out in the chorus with doubled up vocals that stuns a bit to the ears only to be let down after the chorus gently to sweet harmonizations. “Whiskey Drawn” is the extreme end of this spectrum, losing a little bit of the charm that is Anna on stage through the recording-however she accomplishes that sweet spot on “When You Go” between production and purity. The latter and its trumpet highlight her voice and how she can use production to pull out the twangs of emotion more stripped down songs achieve.
For the unaccustomed and curious, Vogelzang’s folk holds its strength in her singing which is something remarkable when you experience it outside of CDs or vinyls or computers or whathaveyous. You get a little taste of it with the start of “Undertow” and leading through to “Heart Beat Faster.” The first song shows it in simplicity, unassuming at first. “Die Trying” continues the rise, giving flutters and a nudge of force in the chorus and halfway through. Then “Heart Beat Faster,” with its memorable and muster-up-the-energy choruses, unleashes Vogelzang’s range for the first time. It’s not over the top-it’s the talent which you don’t see so often in female vocalists in how she can control her singing at will. Compared to Secret Cedar Room, this version stands up to Anna’s singing better.
“Volcanoes” is the song that makes the album. Originally available via an acoustic session video in the dead of winter, the stripped down song is here enhanced by Franz’s accordion. The new instrument lends a bit of sentimentality previously unachieved, and only gives the song more weight to the common yet uncommonly confronted subject matter of a friend concerned over another friend. The song draws silence when it wraps up on stage, and thankfully “Texas” and its somber, sweeps serves as an excellent follow-up.
So while the production may shock people on first listen, Canary in a Coal Mine draws its strength on the element that it often accompanies memorable moments, marking them in their own ways like certain albums can achieve. Listen closely, and it’ll last. Only a few releases can evoke this and, like Anna Vogelzang, it’s the passionate ones that achieve it and can only go up.