Take away the "freak-" and the "psych-" from the oft-used descriptors of her other endeavor, Espers, and you’re left with Meg Baird’s folk-folk solo debut, Dear Companion. Peel away the gongs, doumbeks, dholaks, distortion, and the penchant for the mystical of her fellow Philadelphia collaborators and Baird is left with only a guitar, a beautiful voice, and traditional tales. (Oh, and a little dulcimer.) After all that taking away, we’re left with an album of beautiful traditional and original songs that, while sparse, remind us why folk music requires us to slow down and listen: There is something to simplicity.
The group of friends that includes Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and the members of such bands as Vetiver, Brightblack Morning Light, the Skygreen Leopards has latched onto the messages and images of the folk-influenced artists of the 1960s and ’70s, when folk music was most relevant. But these new artists seem to be bringing back, or feasting on, an old trend rather than beginning a new one, and the output is normally benign. Baird’s Dear Companion, however, has no pretensions. She digs up old, seldom-heard traditional and recent folk tunes only to share them — as they are, as she interprets them.
With songs such as "The Cruelty of Barbary Allen" and "Willie O’ Winsbury," it is clear that Baird has a vast knowledge and love of traditional folk songs. She makes more-recent obscurities such as Fraser & Debolt’s "The Waltze of the Tennis Players" and the New Riders of the Purple Sage’s "All I Ever Wanted" both contemporary and her own. On the former, her easy, captivating voice and guitar picking are soft and delicate; her version is less country than the original but equally as weird, and it’s difficult to believe it’s not her original creation.
Although Baird’s wandering guitar on originals "Riverhouse in Tinicum" and "Maiden in the Moor Lay" fits perfectly within the context of the album, her own songs don’t live up to those she’s reinterpreting. It may lack the enticing complexity and strangeness of her fellow practitioners’ work, but the quaint non-freak Dear Companion is sincere in its purpose. In straying from her aesthetic-heavy scene, Baird is able to deliver a pure folk album, reminding us that the music is more important than the image.