You’d be hard pressed to find a smoother offering of bluegrass-influenced Americana pop than Nashville-based singer-songwriter Ira Wolf’s latest record, The Closest Thing to Home. Though its nine tracks deal with Wolf’s search for stability, and settling for home away from home, she’s in her ideal sonic setting. Her voice is warm and inviting, and she’s backed by the usual folk suspects, from acoustic guitar and upright bass to steel guitar and fiddle.
There are a handful of memorable instrumental melodies, like the mandolin on “Great Divide,” but the songwriting is the real standout. Album opener “Some Days” shows Wolf can turn a phrase with the best of them. “I am still new at getting old / paid these dues and wear down these walls / breaking is easy, and hope is hard / and some days are good, and some years aren’t,” she sings, finding old-soul wisdom in her road-weary rut.
Wolf’s writing is also delightfully subtle at times. The life-on-the-road lament is a genre of its own, and she gives it her own twist on “Ruby,” an intimate personification of her touring van as traveling companion. It gives the album its title, and only speaks of its subject through double entendre: “Ruby had a way of breaking down and leaving me out there on the road” is a personal favorite line.
“Skin & Script” points to the tired and tiring nature of unsatisfactory relationships, and it’s a ballad built on plenty of pop intertext. “All you are is black ink on blue lines / but all I am is one notch in a bedpost […] it was vile and it was cheap / how we trade for what we need,” Wolf sings, conjuring up Fall Out Boy and Death Cab for Cutie. She pushes further than homage, though, developing the mutual toxicity of her characters.
If the album has a weakness, it’s in the Americana toolkit Wolf wields with such elegance. She’s a refreshingly talented writer, and in the future it would be all the more exciting to see her take some risks with sounds and arrangements. As it is, the more upbeat tracks like “Pictures On A Wall” provide a welcome change of pace from the (undeniably lovely) lullaby quality of the record’s slower cuts.
All the record’s textures—a banjo or cello here, shaker percussion there—are expertly deployed, from a production standpoint. It’s a comfortable sound, deftly contrasted with stories of an uncomfortable phase of life. For fans of the aesthetic, The Closest Thing to Home is a must-listen.