Spellbound - Judy Collins

Revealer - Madison Cunningham

The Light At the End of the Line - Janis Ian

Age of Apathy - Aoife O’Donovan

Hell On Church Street - Punch Brothers

Strange as it may sound, it was only in 2022 that Judy Collins first released an album of all original songs. Originally known for singing traditional folk songs and songs of protest in Greenwich Village coffee houses, her debut album came out in 1961.

1967’s Wildflower, featured the Top Ten hit, “Both Sides Now,” written by Joni Mitchell. In 1975 she recorded “Send In the Clowns'' by Stephen Sondheim. It reached the Top 40 chart and contained some of the lyrical themes that worked so well in “Both Sides Now.”

Now as an octogenarian returning to her roots, Collins’ latest release reaches back to her 1960s folk singer personna. She mines her middle and lower vocal registers for all they’re worth. Absent is the soprano found so often in her torch songs of the past few decades.

When I Was a Girl in Colorado,” “Hell On Wheels,” and the title track tell as rich a story as any murder ballad from the Americana archives.

Collins was well prepared entering this all original project. In 2016 she wrote a poem a day for 90 days, which continued for an entire year. That’s one rich deposit of unrefined gold - so much that she anticipates releasing Spellbound II.

Madison Cunningham is an artist that writes songs full of freshness and surprises. “All I’ve Ever Known” opens her Revealer album with a loping groove that swings in three. “Hospital,” is a clever swipe at getting sick and life’s inconveniences in general. Any minute I expected to hear Beck jump in with a sardonic quip or at least two turntables and a microphone.

Anywhere” is as hooky as a swinging ⅞ in folk music gets. The chorus breaks free of the odd time constraints, driving down “Here there and everywhere” highway, 8 to the bar. A couple of other tracks on here go quirky in 7 beats, or in “odd time” - familiar territory for fans of Rush and prog rock.

Life According to Raachel” opens with a gorgeous bass line that invokes Jaco Pastorious. One of many diamonds on this album, the song is an unforgettable tribute to her grandmother. It also has been nominated for Best American Roots Performance.

Both 1967’s“ Society’s Child” and 1975’s “At Seventeen” established Janis Ian as an insightful singer songwriter. On The Light At The End Of the Line Ian takes stock while looking back, and making peace with the journey.

“Stranger” is so up close and intimate sounding, one can hear the squeaky jangling of her guitar. “Resist” has all the punch, swagger and chutzpah you would expect from the 10-time Grammy nominee. “Tell me I’m ugly so I’ll buy your crap. Tell me that you want me ‘cause I don’t talk back.”

Her #1 album in the 1970s was Between the Lines. Now coming full circle, her 10th Grammy nomination is for the album, Light At the End of the Line. The title song is a sober and somber summing up of a life, “but the song will remember, the spark will still shine. It’s the light at the end of the line.” “I’m Still Standing” though not written by Ian, could just as well have been. When she sings, “the lines on my skin tell of the places I’ve been,” it sounds like a retirement party.

And in a way it is. According to the 70 year old singer this is her last album. Unfortunately she had to cancel all future concert appearances due to an unexplained vocal scarring. Unlike Judy Collins, who has more songs to sing, Ian is apparently at the end of the line.

Age of Apathy is Aoife O’Donovan’s 4th full length effort, having already released 3 critically acclaimed albums. It was produced by Joe Henry, an artist, songwriter and producer of 3 Grammy award winning albums. The sonic textures throughout recall the stunning debut of Shawn Colvin, which won the Grammy in 1991 for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

Sister Starling” leads off with an account of a fallen bird rescue, but expands into a rumination about songwriting as well as life’s ups and downs. “Apples and oranges don’t make lemonade, but you press and you squeeze anyway. When life gives you gin you make something…. I will do anything you say.” Great care is taken to bring the richness of her tale to life with a variety of instruments and timbres, while avoiding “everything but the kitchen sink” production excess.

When she testifies her universal truths in “B61” there is the fierce determination in her voice echoing Laura Nyro’s early work {“Love is a daily good thing…but I can’t feel it in my hands, and I’m wringing them more now I’m older”).

Aoife (pronounced “Eefa”) O’Donovan is the only songwriter to use anthracite in a song.

As well as being known as lead singer in the Crooked Stills band, O’Donovan has appeared with multiple Symphony Orchestras. She’s come a long way from touring with Garrison Keiller and Prairie Home Companion. This is a solid piece of work from a talented mid-career artist.

When progressive bluegrass meets classical chamber music it’s called Punch Brothers. They won the Grammy for Best Folk Album in 2019 for All Ashore. For the follow up, Hell On Church Street, the group is paying tribute to flatpicking legend Tony Rice and his 1983 album “Church Street Blues.” The songs were recorded just weeks before Tony’s death, and Punch Brothers’ guitarist Cris Eldridge was a student of Rice.

In Punch Brothers’ hands the title cut is a bittersweet, nostalgic cruise down the open road. Storytelling goes hand in hand with acoustic American styles, which is why “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (a Gordon Lightfoot cover) plays like a tale told around a campfire; dramatic, frightening, and sad.

The formula wears thin on “Streets of London,” which here functions as a depressing cover of Ralph McTell’s heartbreakingly beautiful 1974 folk classic. The song was rerecorded in 2017 by McTell, joined by Annie Lenox, for a charity single.With a belabored fussiness Punch Brothers succeed in removing the song’s maudlin charm, leaving us with an arrangement drained of pathos.

Tom Paxton’s “Last Thing On My Mind” on the other hand, is a successful reimagining of a classic. Sparse, dramatic textures paint a less happier version than the original, and reframe the singer’s dilemma. “Jerusalem Ridge” by Bill Monroe lets the band finally open the throttle and raise the roof.

Pride of Man” is a cover of a 1964 apocalyptic song by Hamilton Camp. It’s been covered by Gordon Lightfoot and Gram Parsons among others. Thankfully Punch Brothers let the song speak for itself, going easy on their knack for overthinking arrangements. Banjo and upright bass lend both drive and drama to the mix. This is one of the more effective tracks on this homage to Rice and the classic songs he recorded some 40 years ago.