Diana Darby 

Naked Time (Delmore Recording Society)

Some terrible beauty was born when Diana Darby met Mark Spencer in Brooklyn to record her debut. Darby, a Nashville singer/songwriter, composes small, quiet Southern slices of life and death -- images like "June bug sitting/on your front porch/where'd you leave your smile?" or "Carry me back home/to the hills that I love/Let me taste the water/one more time." Meanwhile, Spencer, formerly of Boston alt-country pioneers the Blood Oranges, quietly coaxes from his instruments -- guitars, synths, organs and wind chimes -- a delicate menace, a prayer for the dying. The songs ebb and flow, sometimes spilling over their hushed confines, the fears and memories running wild. "Open your heart/to all that/you once thought/could never be," Darby whispers from the other side of a mirror. You might find comfort in the words, but Spencer's layered guitars tremble queerly, as at the end of a long, slow, aching trip -- a bad one, but not without some lovely, unimagined flashes. Such are the moments that make the pain -- and Naked Time has much of it -- worth the effort it takes to endure.

Darby has her precedents -- Nick Drake and Beth Orton come to mind -- and, like any good rock artist, she kills them off with conviction. In the process she makes nonsense of labels like "folk," "alt-country" and "pop." She blurs lines of style but does so in service to some exceptionally honest, original songs. There's the churning, not-quite-punk rock of "She Won't Be Quiet"; the time-changing minisymphony of "Rag Doll"; and the summer porch picking of "Black Dog." "Black dog/chasing squirrels/up on the hill," Darby sings, smiling, finally, at such brutal instincts. "No one told you can't catch one/so you will." No one told Darby she can't make such a ripe, dauntless album, not at first go. She has.

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