Andriana Lehr might originally hail from a small farm in South Dakota, but there’s nothing small town about her songwriting or musical talents. Her latest release Artifacts builds on the promise she exhibited on her 2013 debut Try to Be True while still showing every bit of the influences that have shaped her into the performer she is today. Her decade spent in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, a traditional hotbed for talented singers and songwriters, has honed her potential to a sharp edge and she has both the sound judgment and technique to increasingly realize her artistic ideas. The ten songs on Artifacts never content themselves with a single pose or line of musical adventure. Instead, she fearlessly incorporates unexpected instruments into her template and sets them against unlikely instrumental counterparts. Classical meets country, folk gets a light R&B tinge, and her ear for inventive vocal melodies seems to be unerring.
“Outrun the Change” puts listeners on notice that a lot has changed and more is in the offing. In some ways, this is a song that covers no new territory – plenty of young artists have written about the accompanying shifts that come with growing older and leaving childhood behind. What separates Lehr from her peers on this track and others is the melancholy she invests this with, but the deeper understanding as well. Her aims are deceptively modest. By merely communicating the realities of her life and inner weather, she seemingly makes music for herself alone, but by communicating these things so directly, the song achieves an universality that reaches far beyond the borders of the autobiographical. This applies to many of the songs on Artifacts.
“Ready To Be”, the album’s second track, is similar in intent, but it takes a little bit wider of a view lyrically. The quasi-shuffle of Steve Goold’s drumming gives Lehr a great rhythmic base to sing over and she takes full advantage of it. The languid unraveling of “Ashes in the Fog” is about, in some respects, finding clarity in a life and world where things aren’t always clear or present themselves as they. How do you deal with that, how do you move on? Lehr finds no real answers, but perhaps those answers are here for listeners to discover and remain unspoken. Ken Wilson’s evocative, haunting dobro playing gives the song a second “vocal” that neatly complements Lehr’s own. The tenor sax making an appearance on “Bright Yellow Lights” gives this track a smoky, late night quality that it might otherwise lack and the reverb-soaked guitar work further accentuates that. Though Lehr brings a bevy of talented collaborators to work with her on this album, none of the tracks are a showcase of their virtuosic skills and, instead, musicians like saxophonist J.P. Delaire and guitarist Bryan Ewald are much more concerned with serving the song.
“The Expansion of Everything” ends the album on the same daring note that has characterized so much of it. Pedal steel and cell co-exist easily together with Lehr’s folkie acoustic guitar and she delivers another stunning vocal that puts a bright spotlight on her exquisite phrasing. Artifacts is the sort of album that all around music fans will enjoy and continue returning to for some time – it isn’t reined in by silly labels or an unwillingness to take chances.
9 out of 10 stars