Meg Baird's music moves with earthy strums and delicate, pointillist plucks, acoustic guitar strings bending and chiming. Her lyrics are populated by heartsick souls on long, vague journeys. A maiden here, a beast stalking lovers there. Except for her band, Espers, and a few others, nobody's really writing these sorts of primeval, pre-pop folk songs anymore.
Does she ever get the feeling she's, you know, born in the wrong era?
"I mean, well, look where I work," she says with a shy laugh. We're sitting in an oaken auditorium in North Philly's Wagner Free Institute of Science that could double for the operating theater in The Gross Clinic. Just down the hall is her desk in the development office. Upstairs, century-and-a-half-old taxidermy sits in unrefrigerated glass cases, the atmosphere not musty, just charmingly, ambiguously ancient. That Baird has found employment in such a place just really, really makes sense.
"But no," she continues. "I don't feel dislodged from time. Maybe I'm less wrapped up in this time period, rather than not in it. Maybe just a little more interested in things that don't change as much."
Listeners who found themselves captivated by Baird's 2007 solo debut, Dear Companion, will notice a few changes in the new Seasons on Earth (Drag City): more supporting musicians, a prevailing lushness and, of course, all those originals. Where the first one unleashed Baird's lofty, celestial voice on her favorite songs and songwriters (Fraser & DeBolt's "Waltze of the Tennis Players," Jimmy Webb's "Do What You Gotta Do"), the new one has her confidently brandishing her own writing skills.
"Stream" swells and settles, raising the volume and upping the tempo perhaps only to conjure by contrast a calmer calm for the spooky, still parts. Nimble fingers drive the elegant "Stars Climb Up the Vine" while "Babyon" drips with Baird's most forceful and emotive vocals. Throughout, the sliding sounds of a pedal steel and dobro turn up to haunt the backdrop, and lend a little chaos to the rhythmic main plot.
The album does include a pair of well-chosen covers, Mark-Almond Band's "Friends" and The House of Love's "The Beatles and the Stones" — two tracks that match Baird's originals when it comes to enigmatic intent. A traditional like "The Cruelty of Barbary Ellen," a murder ballad that nestled nicely into Dear Companion, would have no place in the mysterious and finessed Seasons on Earth.
"It's nothing that you'd require a decoder ring for. It's all pretty obvious stuff," she says. Less clear is why it took Baird four years to follow up her widely acclaimed debut and capitalize on its success.
"That would have been sensible," she laughs, chalking it up to all the time she spends with Espers and The Baird Sisters, the duo with her sister Laura. "When I did the first record I wasn't even sure that I would make other records. That was kind of an experiment, just really go crazy and, with a lot of hubris, pick amazing songs, songwriter songs."
After working Seasons over at home and on stage for so long, the album came together pretty swiftly, a two-week session at Miner Street Studios. "It was really old-fashioned, I thought about it very album-formatted. Nothing new or fancy. Just thinking of it as an album."
One complaint? No lyric sheet to help the careful listener get to the roots of it, to pin down the story behind the album's many moods. "I don't know. It's not like they're secret," says Baird. "There's something weird about making a big deal about putting them in a sheet. I don't necessarily want them to exist without the music."