Iris DeMent "Infamous Angel" (Warner, 1992)
Without question, one of the greatest records of the 1990s alt-country/Americana boom. DeMent's plainspoken, earnest, honest tone is as completely disarming as her songwriting is seductive: no wonder John Prine championed her cause when she was getting started in the singer-songwriter arena. The album opens with "Let The Mystery Be," a song that acknowledges all of life's big metaphysical questions, then cheerfully decides that it's just more fun to let them remain unanswered. Hey, she's got me hooked already. Every song that follows lives up the high standard set at the start, with particular highlights including "When Love Was Young," a sparely written "hey, how'd we get so old?" falling-out-of-love song, and the dolefully anthemic "Our Town," which I found appealing even before I discovered that it actually was written about the town I grew up in (well, almost - she was living in Topeka, Kansas at the time; I grew up about thirty miles away...) DeMent skillfully uses the talents of various studio hotshots such as newgrassers Jerry Douglas and Roy Husky, Jr., as well as hippiebilly old-timer Al Perkins, but where other new artists might tend to let these old pros just do the same old thing while backing them up, she gets very distinctive and emotionally involving performances out of everyone concerned. Plus, Emmylou even drops by to drop on a harmony on one of the album's closing tunes... friends in high places, indeed! If you don;t have this album already, you really should track a copy down and buy it. It's a goodie.
Iris DeMent "My Life" (Warner, 1994)
This is one of my favorite DeMent albums, and that's mostly on the strength of one amazing song, "No Time To Cry," which explores the complex emotions DeMent felt while grappling with her father's death. I dunno, maybe I'm just a sucker for that kind of thing, but I've seldom heard such powerful songwriting... it's not sentimental or mauldlin, merely devastating and intensely honest. The rest of the record is quite nice, too... Folkish country framed by DeMent's resolutely rural vocals... I'll admit, she's best in small doses, but those doses sure pack a wallop!
Iris DeMent "The Way I Should" (Warner, 1996)
DeMent's third solo outing, this record left a lot of her more traditionally-minded fans cold, although it definitely has its strong points. Personally, I too could live without the Nanci Griffith-styled folk-pop arrangements that coat this album, and the heartfelt politics of the album, while admirable, are a little too baldly rendered. One song about domestic abuse, another about the Vietnam War Memorial, an exploration of poverty -- this kind of folkie material can be powerful when done right, but reluctantly I have to admit that DeMent's approach is a little too on the nose, and the music drones a bit, where it should be more punchy, in order to carry the message to the audience. Still, she has a great voice, very distinctive and direct, and songs like the title track stick in your mind, the way they should. Even though it's a little preachy and grindlike, in some regards this is an admirable album. If you're a DeMent fan, you should probably check it out...
Iris DeMent "Lifeline" (Flariella, 2004)
A surprising, refreshing all-gospel album which is remarkable for its emotional sincerity and stylistic purity. DeMent, an indie critic's darling who hadn't put out an album in eight years, came back on the scene with this self-released gem which showcases a baker's dozen of stolid, steadfast bedrock country gospel oldies, sung without irony or embarrassment, with no hint of self-consciousness or any trace of post-modern kitschiness. DeMent means it. This is a real-deal Christian country record, and she makes no concessions to the secular mores of her indie-hipster, folk-scene fan base -- instead, she recorded an album of music she believes in, and it's hard not to be impressed by the palpable feeling she puts into the performances. Some of the music is a little hard to handle, just in terms of the starkness of the melodies and the keening quality of her vocals -- it's all completely appropriate to the style, but still can be a little grating. But these are excellent renditions of some tried and true gospel songs, and her versions of grand old anthems such as "I've Got That Old Time Religion In My Heart" and "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms" are worthy of George Jones in his holier moments. Definitely worth checking out, though atheists and agnostics will probably want to skip this one.
Iris Dement "Sing The Delta" (Flariella, 2012)
Hick Music Index