In a year marked by pain, loss, frustration, hope, and subsequently lost in hope’s shadow, there has been a proliferation of albums that embrace a past that exists wrapped in a community thread that’s largely unraveled. Great bluegrass albums from The Black Twig Pickers, Eight Point Star, Bill MacKay and Nathan Bowles summoned restless ghosts in the barn while Russell Hoke took a more monastic approach to the form. Myriam Gendron explored traditions lost and found, tracing the past’s treadmarks on our souls. In this light, the latest album from Joseph Allred might arrive as the pinnacle of folk in the post-pandemic era. As with most of Allred’s works, it finds itself an amalgam of influences, yet an ineffable spiritual folk serves as its guiding star.
The album isn’t as communal as some of the others this year, owing to the circumstances of our times, but Joseph manages to make his solo recordings feel like the glowing embers of a gathering even as he harmonizes with himself. Here Allred’s is a mass of the mind, singing out his tales of turbulent hearts and rumpled souls to the walls and windows like secular hymns haunted by sadness but searching for joy. He folds in an admirable cornucopia of instruments — harmonium, piano, guitars, glockenspiel, banjo, tambourine, bass drum, and clarinet — with the creak of the harmonium helping to rust the songs into stark relief. In an impressive catalog that’s bloomed greatly over the past couple of years, Branches & Leaves stands as gem even in his rather sterling collection.
Two covers stand out among the fare here, both traditional songs once interpreted by The Carter family. While on the original, “Scoundrel,” Allred assures us that he’s not holy, try as he might, these two covers weave among his own scarred gospel, finding universal connection well outside of the scripture. In Joseph’s hands tales like “Can’t Feel At Home,” ostensibly a hymn about knowing that your reward lies beyond this world, serves as a parable for feeling misaligned with a populace clawing at false idols and a world long poisoned that’s purging the faithful and fallen with little distinction. Allred is pulling threads that were woven long ago, whether by divine hands or not, calling up sobering sounds that bathe the listener in a clear-eyed light. Whether relief or retirement everlasting lies on the other side of the curtain we may never know, but he and the Carters are right, we can’t feel at home in this world anymore. Truly this is among Allred’s finest and climbing high on the albums of the year.
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