Reading my last discussion of Liv Greene, it would be easy to get the impression I thought of her as a throwback act, reviving all the old tropes of folk and country for washed up fogies who wanna sing songs from the old times and young kids who wish they’d been there when “it was real.” This is because, at that time with what I’d heard then, I kinda did. However, listening to her new release I can hear a massive progression since I wrote that article a year and a half ago. Her songwriting is much the same as last I heard her (I heard some songs on this album at some point back in 2018), but her arrangement has undergone a massive change since I last heard her. Evolving out of the 60s and 70s style of Joan Baez and Dave Van Ronk style of folk and embracing techniques commonly found in Highwomen or Patty Griffin records.
Greene’s songwriting was never in question. She’s always been able to take elements from artists like Richard Thompson or Jason Isbell’s writing and rephrase and recontextualize it into something new. However, her partnership with Isa Burke of Lula Wiles (an upcoming trio signed to Smithsonian Folkways) has brought out a new way of being able to show it off. The harmonies, the lead guitar, the mandolin provided by Maddie Witler — it comes together to help guide the listener to the elements of the song that need to be emphasized that weren’t necessarily before. The very first track demonstrates this beautifully. “Arms of New York” is centrally about the banjo centrally, but the percussion and bass powerfully accent the rhythm with the electric guitar punctuating the melody to emphasize the most emotionally powerful notes. The whole thing serves as a great and very representative introduction to the album.
For another microcosm of this, let’s look at “Independence,” a song that I heard some form of at some point long ago. While the chords, melody, and rhythm all remain the same beautiful composition, there’s a lot added in this fully arranged version vs the minimal version I heard before. The focal point of the song remains Greene’s voice and acoustic guitar (as it is on every track on this album), but the way the fiddle accents the rhythm, the way the drums creep into the listeners field of listening — it emphasizes the strengths of the song without adding anything unnecessary. While some artists when introduced to all these instruments would become transfixed by the ways you can juxtapose chords and melodies, Greene makes sure everything in the mix serves the song the way she’d play it on guitar alone at a gig.
Other stand out tracks include “Gone,” a beautifully punchy song with lyrics I’d expect on a Pistol Annies album, mirroring outlaw country themes in lines like “Now I got the highway to hold/as I’m riding on a ribbon of gold//hope that you don’t mind me going where you’ll never find me with the money from your shit I sold.” It’s the one song on the album that’s a proper jam with solos for the mandolin and fiddle, and is perhaps more powerful in its solitude on the album in that regard.
Every Bright Penny exudes wit in its lyrics, creativity in its songwriting and focus in its arrangement. It’s a great step forward from what I’d heard from Greene before. It’s not only a great album, but an especially impressive feat for a debut, and bodes well for the rest of her career.
Every Bright Penny by Liv Greene is available from her Bandcamp and on most every streaming platform tomorrow, Friday, May 7, 2020.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.