You might think of Simon & Garfunkel when you first hear Cricket Blue, or of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. But their music is equally evocative of literary voices: Alice Munro. Dylan Thomas. Flannery O’Connor. Even a touch of Edward Gorey.
Laura Heaberlin and Taylor Smith are musicians, sure, but they're storytellers too. The eleven songs on their debut album Serotinalia feature a cast of characters right out of a short story collection. A listless grocery store clerk. A woman obsessed with her milkman. A harvest deity who is ritually murdered every fall. Oh, and a pair of scissors.
The album's title, Serotinalia, derives from the botanical term "serotiny," a trait of certain plants that release seeds in response to an external environmental trigger — such as a forest fire — rather than at a standard point of maturation. "We think people are serotinal in the way some plants are," Smith says. "You don't mature on a calendar schedule, but in response to these impinging forces."
When the pair first met as members of a Middlebury College a cappella group, both were individually-performing singer-songwriters. After graduation, they each got involved in the folk scene in Burlington, Vermont, often splitting bills. As they worked out more and more duets to add variety to these sets, Heaberlin and Smith accidentally slipped into being a duo. They made it official in the summer of 2013 and formed Cricket Blue.
Two acclaimed EPs resulted, leading to Paste magazine dubbing Cricket Blue one of the "10 Vermont Bands You Should Listen To Now." Vermont's alternative weekly Seven Days called them "indie folk with soul and intellect," naming their last EP one of the year's best albums, and they've played stages and folk festivals around the United States and Canada. But it took Heaberlin and Smith five years to record their first full-length. They write slowly, they say, filling pages of notebooks with ideas about a certain character before gradually condensing it into a song. "If you just write about yourself all the time, you're limited in what you're able to say," says Heaberlin. "So I create a character that comes from an emotionally true space but I’m able to tailor their circumstances to better build the point I’m trying to make."
Fortunately, Cricket Blue's dense, often dark narratives are delivered with some catchy hooks. Listeners have lauded their songs “an astonishing mix of original lyrics and arrangements that rewards the casual listener, as well as those who choose to lean forward and roll them around like great pieces of literature and composition” and an "unlikely combination of the gothic, the literary, and the hummable."
Repeated instrumental themes and melodies throughout the album create what the band refers to as "secret passages" connecting the songs; in particular, album centerpiece "Corn King" builds to a collision of motifs from every other track. To bring their orchestral vision to life, the pair employed a string trio (John Dunlop on cello, Laura Markowitz on viola and violin, Sofia Hirsch on violin) as well as clarinet (Dan Liptak), flute (Tessa Anderson), trumpet (Christopher Hawthorn), and upright bass (Robinson Morse, and Dan Bishop). They recorded their album with Jeff Oehler at Beehive productions in upstate New York.
Serotinalia’s opener, "Oracles", wrestles with ethical arguments (such as this famous one from philosopher David Benatar) against bringing children into a cruel and difficult world. "It sounds like a bleak prologue for an album," Heaberlin says, "but if you think of 'Oracles' as the question and [final track] 'Burdens Down' as the answer, the arc is ultimately pretty optimistic."
From there, Serotinalia presents a series of flawed protagonists who are all subject to distressing circumstances that act as triggers for psychological metamorphoses. In "Alicia From the Store" a college student working a summer job observes her jaded coworker’s inconsistent attitudes toward lecherous men and her place in society. "June" shifts the format from dialogue to a letter, written by the titular character to an ex-boyfriend. She struggles with both the relationship's end and doubts around her own self-worth and purity. The narrator of "Psalm" takes cues from plants and animals in domestic captivity to navigate the guilt she feels for thriving in her new life after the end of a long relationship.
The peppily-baroque "Milkman" features a besotted admirer in the mould of Stephen King's Misery; "No Carpenter" deals with the powerlessness of realizing that your partner needs things you aren’t cut out to provide. The chilly "Elliott" presents the narrator's ambivalent relationship to a man's unsettling behavior.
"Straw Boy" comes across as Smith's most personal song, in which he interrogates the somewhat risible, somewhat dangerous self-mythologizing that songwriters (or artists of any stripe) can slip into. Next comes "Corn King", a 12-minute epic which brings to mind the tone poems of Joanna Newsom's Ys. The song draws from a myth about townspeople ritually burning an effigy to ensure a good harvest. "I didn't set out to write such a long song," Smith says. "I had a bunch of different songs I was working on, all about the same circumstances in my life. At a certain point I thought, maybe these are all the same song." Says Heaberlin: "The idea was that all the characters on the album are headed toward this huge, transformative fire that takes place during this song." She adds: "It took us forever to reason out the guitar parts and the harmonies to 'Corn King'. Like seven months."
The fire continues on the sparse "Little Grays" — a song about a favorite pair of scissors spared from a (real-life) blaze in Heaberlin's kitchen — which functions thematically as a redemptive epilogue (and sonic palate-cleanser) to "Corn King." Finally, after the flames die down, "Burdens Down" pushes back against the specter of pessimism that has been hovering about the album since "Oracles". In becoming close with a friend who is carrying some never-fully-disclosed trauma, one of Serotinalia’s many fallible characters gets nudged — almost to his own surprise — into a new and more selfless mode of love.
Serotiny, after all.
"A fresh-sounding, true delight of an album." – Folk Radio UK
"Master storytellers." – NPR
"Breathtaking in its beauty and ambition." – The All Scene Eye
"Deft instrumentation . . . beside the ebb and flow of a brilliant, understated vocal performance." – PopMatters
"Spellbinding storytelling." – Red Line Roots
"Melancholy [and] melodically whimsical." – Atwood Magazine
"You're lulled in by the sweetness of their melodies that are reminiscent of traditional Appalachian folk or literary indie rock like Andrew Bird and find yourself suddenly surprised by the epiphanies that their songs so often crescendo to." – B-Side
"Artists as skilled and astounding as Laura Heaberlin and Taylor Smith of Cricket Blue pass through only rarely. They possess rare wisdom and depth . . . your heart and mind will dance." – Mark Sustic, founder, Young Tradition Vermont
"Their songs on indecision, love and perseverance seem timeless." – Paste