I’ve gotta say – I’m stunned. Stunned by the number of albums by ace female guitar players that have landed in my inbox over the past few months. Just this year, I’ve written reviews of Molly Tuttle, Courtney Hartman, Abigail Lapell, and Our Native Daughters with their four banjo virtuosos. It’s not that I thought that a woman couldn’t play a guitar. No, it’s just wonderful to see that Americana is one genre of music that will allow anyone at the table, as long as you’ve got the chops. That brings us to Madison Cunningham. After showing those chops for a year on the road, playing on American Public Media’s “Live From Here” (formerly “A Prairie Home Companion”), and opening for The Punch Brothers on all 34 dates of their North American tour, the native Californian settled in at the Sonic Ranch studio near El Paso, Texas to record her latest, Who Are You Now (Verve Forecast).
The first song on the album, “Pin It Down”, is a deceptively peppy tune about the familiar sense of deja vu that comes with too many failed relationships: “I can’t pin it down/But I think we’ve been here once before.” She’s wary, though, of walking the same path – “I’m standing right beside/Where I said I would never be” – and she later includes her partner in the decision- making, changing the “I”s to “we”s.
Cunningham’s voice and playing style are quite malleable. Her vocals have earned comparisons to (among others) Aimee Mann, and there is a certain 90s alternative feel at the top of “Song In My Head”, with the naked uncertainty and impatience of young adulthood to match: “I do my best to listen/But I’m uncomfortable with too much silence.” And the song finishes with a guitar flurry worthy of a Liz Phair record. On the very next track, though, Cunningham goes full torch singer. “Something To Believe In”, mostly accompanied with soft piano and guitar, has her tastefully belting out her angst: “I’ve spent my life looking for a truth that I can bear.”
Cunningham continues to shift moods and styles. “Lookin’ Alive” is pleasantly light and jazzy. “Common Language” is the least restrained track on the album. She lets her voice soar as she realizes two similar people can hold deep differences – “We’re the same note, different octaves.” “Like You Do” drops the heaviest line on an album full of surprisingly self-aware lyrics from such a young (22 years old) songwriter: “I see the darkness in me when I try to find it in you.” And the musical highlight of the album is “Dry As Sand”. Slower, pensive, dark, foreboding, and her best guitar work on the record. Slap your headphones on and turn down the lights for this one.
Who Are You Now was produced by Tyler Chester. You can order the album here: https://verveforecast.lnk.to/MCWAYN
Check out tour dates for Madison Cunningham here: http://www.madisoncunningham.com/