Some music slides into everyday life and acts as wallpaper while not leaving much of an impression. Other music fits a time, or a mood, or a situation. Perhaps I was influenced by my surroundings while listening to it (a subtly stormy afternoon), but Courtney Hartman and Taylor Ashton’s Been On Your Side (Free Dirt Records) seems fit for a day when you have time to slow down, listen, and think.
Singer/guitarist Hartman (late of Della Mae) and singer/banjoist Ashton (from Fish & Bird) combined their songwriting talents on 10 of the album’s songs (along with two covers from Nick Drake and Bill Withers). The result is introspective lyrics, spare instrumentation and disparate, but complementary, vocals. Despite working together for the first time, the lyrics reflect life-long relationships. The first song, “Wayside”, hints at the idea of soulmates – “I was born to make you smile/And meet you in the aisle.” The title track is an almost grudging defense of a friendship: “I was the bridge you couldn’t burn/Heaven knows how hard you tried.” Relationships – of any definition – aren’t to be rushed. The good ones will endure.
The merits of Been On Your Side are not rooted in lyricism alone. Musicianship stands out across the album. Ashton’s gentle electric bed underneath “Meadowlark” sets the tone for the song, and Hartman’s classical guitar on “First of Us” is simply gorgeous. The liner notes frequently credit additional musicians with “noises,” and these are used most effectively in “Hold Still”, which is mostly percussion and natural sound provided by Hartman, Ashton, Jason Burger, and Jacob Blumberg, replicating the random sounds of an early morning spent in a warm embrace and asking not to disturb the peace and quiet, at least for a little while longer.
The duo can either go light(ish) or heavy, lyrically speaking. “Dead to Me” is a deceptively chipper he said/she said – he loves her, she’s bored and over it. “My life may end/If you don’t spend 24/7 with me” goes up against “I want to love my life/But living isn’t fun with you.” It’s as if Johnny Cash married Courtney Love. Much more openly downbeat, yet oddly hopeful, is “Better”, the words of an addict begging for acceptance: “I broke my promise then/but I promise I won’t do that again.” It’s a guarantee made (and meant) by addicts, but a hard one to complete. When he sings “I’m better now,” you find yourself hoping he is, if only because the alternative is heartbreaking.
Along with Hartman, Ashton and the “noise”-makers, a horn section – Alec Spiegelman, Michael Winograd and Dan Blacksberg – joins the duo on “Loving Hands” (Spiegelman also plays clarinet and organ on the album). Blumberg produced the album, which was recorded in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, and Brooklyn, where the duo met and conceived the project. Get yourself a copy, here. https://www.courtneyhartman.com/