Associated with Blackbird Raum and The Gembrokers, Californian singer/songwriter Amelia Baker began producing hauntingly powerful music via solo outlet Cinder Well in 2015. A tour with Irish trad-punkers Lankum led her heart, and ultimately Baker herself, to Ireland’s County Clare, relocating to study and soak in the isle’s musical roots and scenes. Despite stunted inspiration during a compulsory lockdown, Baker managed to record the findings of her arguably spiritual exploration. The result? No Summer.
New to Cinder Well, I had it on good authority that alone and uninterrupted was the optimum way to experience this album – that it thrived on undivided attention. So I approached No Summer in a very different manner than most albums I review, opting to take my first stroll through the record while lying in bed one night. My eyes firmly shut to match the darkness of encroaching midnight, I remained completely motionless from start to finish. What a decision that turned out to be. I’m prone to embellishment, analogies, and long-winded waxing as much as the next writer, so before I get firmly into it, let me first state – explicitly and very much without any muddying or waxing of words – that this album is fucking mesmerising.
If that’s all you need, great – go listen already. If not, I’ll gladly elaborate. You see, Baker displays her emotional and musical response to what she sought out in a manner that is impossible to resist. The album teems with a raw Celtic charm, driven by Baker’s commanding presence on vocals, guitar, key, and fiddle. Tracks are supported gracefully by Mae Kessler and Marit Schmidt (on violin and viola, respectively), who offer up string work reminiscent of the lush and sometimes lonely nature of the Irish countryside, something Baker was immersed in both by choice and force. Speaking on the matter, Baker elaborates:
‘Lockdown is such a bizarre experience because everyone is experiencing this disruption from our social lives, but we’re all experiencing it at the same time which actually creates a sense of understanding and comfort in that alone-ness.‘
This endless dance between the reassuring unity of isolation and its chaotic upheaval hangs in the air of reverence that No Summer carries for the reality of solitude, imposed or otherwise.
Alongside roots of Irish heritage, No Summer boasts an endearing marriage of influences, including interpretations of traditional Appalachian folk tunes. Opener “Wandering Boy”, for example, is adapted from banjo player Roscoe Holcomb. Additionally, the electric guitar of “The Cuckoo” and chipper instrumental “Queen of the Earth, Child of the Skies” offers further evidence that, far from jarring, these renditions are executed and stitched into the bigger tapestry masterfully. They complement both the original source and the overarching tones of countryside and culture that reside elsewhere on Baker’s original compositions.
Swathes of character fill No Summer, lending to its haunting sense of emotional and cultural narrative as we are led through tales of distance, desperation, damage, and much more besides. All is captured through a raw, and often bleak acoustic lens that Baker oversees with her strikingly affecting voice as it meanders from alluring wisp to a formidable – if pained – serenade. One such case is the enchanting, acoustic sway of the title track; as inviting as it is unfulfilled. ‘No summer here‘, the harmonious chorus broods.
The album excels in how it uses those undertones of solemnity and isolation. Rather than wallow, No Summer instead paves a road of subtle catharsis that reaches for understanding, healing – at the very least, self-awareness. Baker sculpts a meditative entity, crafting music that embraces what others might try to escape or ignore. Take the comforting hypnosis of “Our Lady’s”: predominantly instrumental, it’s inspired by an abandoned asylum near her home and the unsettled lives of its prior inhabitants. An uncomfortable stimulus, yet soft and strangely soothing in its delivery.
Penned at a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness around ten years ago, “Fallen” is a reverberating campfire lullaby that was originally featured on Cinder Well‘s 2015 debut. Even now, it retains an uplifting, ethereal depth to counter its minimal layering – all splashed with Baker’s unrestrained voice. Conversely, “From Behind the Curtain” is a bittersweet finale. The poignant guitar strums and poetic lyricism read like a heartfelt letter to someone significant that bridges the Atlantic, as Baker chooses to ‘Stop on the way home from the bar/To listen to the wind/Because it sounds like the waves in California‘.
Music carries an inherent power to shape us, to build, destroy, transform, and impact in countless other ways. While the phrase ‘essential listening’ gets tossed around a lot, rarely does an album truly justify the moniker. Equally in its nuances and its totality, No Summer is a phenomenal, essential album. A necessity entrenched in melancholy imagery of verdant townships and the solitude of both sound and soul. Baker has harvested the intimate depths of experiences that left an undeniable mark on her. Through No Summer, we too can embrace such intimacy and catharsis for ourselves. You owe it to yourself to switch off from the world and let it overrun you.