Not that she eschews country traditions — the band's treatment of Warren Zevon's entreaty and lament "Heartache Spoken Here" (with Ron Sexsmith and Doug Reimer on backup vocals) is so classic that Chris Saywell's guitar tone sounds ripped straight from Johnny Cash's early recordings. But Nightjar is filled with the million little revelations that come when a talented performer goes deeper and broader with their sound, as Reimer has done with help from producer, co-writer, keyboardist and bassist Bob Wiseman (Reimer also covers Wiseman's "10,000 Miles" on the album).
Alt-country opener "Maggie The Retriever (Bang Bang)" shows off Reimer's alto brawn over bowed cello, while "1,500 Appeals" is gorgeous alt-pop folk with absolutely eerie, chill-inducing backups from Nathan's Keri Latimer. Meanwhile, moving and steadily told "Whippoorwill" (about Reimer's young adulthood pregnancy) should be in contention for best folk/country song of the year as Burke Carroll's pedal steel parts dance around and the melody lifts and falls.
More impressive, perhaps, is how Reimer and the band pull off political and protest material. "The Lonesome Death Of Troy Davis" (Davis was executed in 2011) has a refrain, "this is bigger than you" that doesn't sound like sloganeering and yet could reclaim some of the potential power of political slogans. There is also a great, empowering (and surprisingly melodic) folk cover of Patti Smith's "People Have The Power," with backup vocals from Reimer's family and an eccentric piano solo at the end care of Wiseman. Elsewhere, as on "Bullseye," sparse chamber folk arrangements (mandolin, clarinet, horns) and Reimer's weary voice suggest a kinship with folk artists like Dartmouth's Ruth Minnikin, while Reimer's Mennonite roots shine through on partly a cappella gospel closer "I Want To Believe."
It's the kind of album that lingers with you after it's over and has people asking, "Who's that?" Well folks, it's Jess Reimer. (Pipe & Hat)