Released on 10 February of this year, In Embudo is the debut album of Mary Elizabeth Remington in collaboration with her friends Adrienne Lenker and James Krivchenia of Big Thief and Mat Davidson of Twain. I am always interested in new folk sounds, so this album immediately piqued my interest. Add to that the prospect that Remington is a new recording artist, with this being her debut album. And that this album was recorded as live takes in a cabin in Embudo, New Mexico which is in the southwest of the USA – hence the album name In Embudo. The recording style for this album was unique in the sense that Remington simply began to sing, others joined in, and then they pressed record: ‘we were recording fresh moments’, said Remington.
‘The dry desert air and vast clay coloured landscape brought inspiration and calmness to the process of creating music together.’
Remington has been performing her songs to the public since 2013 with vocals which have been described as low and unusual. I find her values to be interesting and in line with the historic practice of folk song – she imagines people humming her tunes whilst they go about their lives, be it ‘crafting, wandering, or going through a difficult time’. This does remind me of how folk began: with songs passed down and shared within communities.
In general, the lyrics of Remington’s songs in this album feel carefully and meaningfully crafted. They feel poetic. The harmonies with Lenker and Davidson are gorgeous and very tasteful. And as for the solo vocals themselves, Remington’s voice is indeed low and lovely. There is a great folk-like quality without it being too airy. She has much control over her voice and the sound she creates.
The instrumental accompaniment is oftentimes plucked ostinati with an acoustic guitar. Sometimes percussive elements are also incorporated. All of it feels deliberate and has a calming effect. Many of the songs conjure a western, country, or blues feel, like they are inspired by old American singers and folk songs.
The first song on In Embudo is ‘All Words’, a culmination of many of the above-mentioned qualities. ‘Dresser Hill’ is similar and is by far the most popular on Spotify with over 70,000 streams as of writing. I think this song is reminiscent of old blues songs, especially with the theme of ill-fated love with crooning vocals and close harmonies. I am also particularly called to mention the melismatic setting of some of the words as well as the dotted rhythms of the melody which enhance this feeling. ‘Tuesday’ is similar to this blues style, but with a lullaby feel.
Some of the songs are entirely unaccompanied and sport just the solo voice: sometimes just Remington on her own and sometimes joined in harmony. ‘Mary Mary’ is such a song, although the ending to me feels puzzling – the song disintegrates into laughter and a strange effect is added to a recording of an instrumental. The fifth track off the album, ‘Green Grass’, is also a solo song which is effective in its style as Remington sings another folk-inspired piece in a short and sweet one-minute ode. ‘Mother’ is also a solo song which depicts the pride and love of mother and child.
With ‘Fire’, I’d like to mention how great the addition of percussion is. The fills and rhythms are not just standard, and the percussion is given its moments to dazzle. The three-part harmony is also wonderful. I find it amazing that Remington sings the melody in such a low range that the harmonies simply float on top of it.
Percussion also has a role at the beginning of ‘Holdfast’. The ostinato with electric bass is also an interesting addition as this is not heard in other compositions. The beat and ostinato, as well as the melody, feel more akin to popular, modern music in this one. The vocals are also almost unstopping, singing continuously. I am unsure of the choice of the ‘slapback’ reverb on the voice; it feels like it almost takes away from the sincerity of the sound. For this reason, I would say that this track is the least compelling of the entire album.
‘Wind Wind’ has this very interesting mix of acoustic and steel guitar which I believe gives the track a certain ethereal quality. You might recognise the steel guitar sound as invoking a certain ‘Hawaiian’ feel – indeed, this is because the modern steel guitar was developed and promoted in the Hawaiian Islands. This sound is also reminiscent of early-twentieth-century music, where this instrument influenced the sound of many different genres in the US.
The final two songs of the album are ‘Water Song’ and ‘Wooden Roads’, both of which are tracks I feel have real merit. There is a special ambience to ‘Water Song’ as we are lulled by the sound of the rain in the background. Remington’s vocals are soft and in two specific folk styles which morph between each other throughout. The blues-style three-part harmonies are very effective. What I like about this track, as well, is its end, where for a few seconds, there is simply the sound of the rain and the participating artists’ natural breaths, sniffs, and hums. It shows that this is simply a real moment with real humans. We can so often forget that these tracks are brought to us by living, breathing humans when so many modern tracks remove these noises that are markers of our humanity. Finally, ‘Wooden Roads’. The double acoustic guitar in stereo sound makes this track an encompassing experience. The vocals being occasionally shadowed by the guitar is also a great effect. I also like the percussive beats and grounding by open fifths and pedal notes in the accompaniment.
I would overall highly recommend checking out In Embudo, especially if you are interested in the old American folk sound or simply calming, meaningful, acoustic tracks – you will certainly find something of interest here. I am looking forward to seeing where Mary Elizabeth Remington goes from here.