Caitlin Cary could start a goddamn grindcore band and she'd still be tagged popularly as an alt-country siren, the female foil to Ryan Adams' charmed gruff. Whiskeytown, of course, has been done for more than a decade; in the intervening years, Cary has offered elegant, spare storytelling under her own name and gorgeous, warm harmonies with Tres Chicas. With both, she's moved well past the surfeit of twang that made her old band famous, but, like a female Ron Sexsmith waiting for deliverance, her history's often eclipsed her present aims.
Though not as extreme a departure as that suggested above, Small Ponds—Cary's quietly confident collaboration with fair-voiced pop songsmith and multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas—should, at last, lift her out of the y'allternative wheelhouse. These tunes swing from the lithe to the lovelorn, from the dreamy, fragmented, handclap waltz of "Horse on a Bus" to the anchored-by-desolation duet "Loneliness." Douglas and Cary take more risks with structures and sounds than that old form might allow, particularly on "Gypsy Cards." As its title aptly suggests, the tune is sly and cunning, Douglas moaning over Cary's fiddle glide and a bass line that seems swiped from Dr. Dre's sample kit circa 1999. And "Bleeding Heart" conjures British guitarist James Blackshaw softening Bon Iver with grace and tone, the desperate plea gathering slowly over six minutes, both singers arriving simultaneously at their clause of redemption—"Love won't punish you for the rest of your days."
Similarly, this is where the past humbly bows to the future.