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Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion Bright Examples Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

A wonderful new record from the husband-and-wife pair.

Andy Fyfe 2011

When your grandfather and father are Woody and Arlo Guthrie respectively, it’s probably a blessing and a curse. Your musical lineage is never going to be questioned, but there is also possibly an expectation to carry on the family ‘business’, championing the underdog and needling the establishment.

Coming to a musical career relatively late in life, no one has ever accused Sarah Lee Guthrie of cashing in on the family name, the former record shop worker and punk fan only really picking up the guitar after meeting future hubby Johnny Irion (through mutual friend and Black Crowe Chris Robinson, of course). Irion taught her the chords to some Gram Parsons songs which seemed to unlock her inner performer, and they've been a musical and matrimonial item ever since. The family name certainly can't have hurt when assembling the guests on their second album together, however. Produced by Vetiver mainman Andy Cabic, Jayhawks Mark Olsen and Gary Louris (who produced their 2005 debut, Exploration) popped by to add vocals, while former Ryan Adams guitarist Neal Casal and various Vetivers are among the featured musicians.

If Guthrie is a little green in comparison to the more seasoned Irion, himself the grand-nephew of John Steinbeck and a man who's toured since the early 90s both solo and with various rootsy acts (Dillon Fence, Queen Sarah Saturday), you'd never know it. From opening tracks Ahead of Myself – a dreamy, wafting ballad of self discovery – or the harsher-sounding acoustic folk rock of Never Far From My Heart, there's a chemistry between them that echoes the tight-knit nature of the two bands those songs respectively most resemble: Beach House and The Jayhawks. Naive flashes such as the jarring and slightly pointless Louris-like guitar of Dupont Circle occasionally suggest the pair are still finding their collective feet, but there's a natural charm to Bright Examples that swims into focus when, for example, Guthrie discovers on Butterflies that "I'm beginning to notice your eyes" with a perfect sense of breathless surprise.

Given their family pedigrees, some might expect Guthrie and Irion to proffer stronger, more political meat. Bright Examples, however, is about the easy tenderness of a husband and wife, and Americana so often relies on the fallen and the tragic to make an emotional impact that it's incredibly refreshing to witness joy and contentment as a driving force. A wonderful record, just don't expect it to set the world to rights.

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