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Kristina Stykos, In The Earth's Fading Light 

(Self-released, CD)

Central Vermont's genius songwriter, musician and concert promoter Kristina Stykos doesn't simply crank out recordings. Her releases typically have long gestation periods, during which she tinkers and fine-tunes each track. The painstaking work represented by her latest disc, In the Earth's Fading Light, has paid off in 16 cuts that are as elegant and color-rich as Joni Mitchell's finest efforts.

Stykos' masterful acoustic guitar style features innovative chording and sophisticated rhythms. She can also play the stuffing out of a mandolin, or even the cittern -- a larger, lower-register cousin of the guitar. While many know her six-string work with folk trio Bellatrix, Stykos is also an impressive pianist. Her instrumental skills are matched only by her voice, which possesses a beautifully fragile quaver. Interestingly, the record treats Stykos' melodies as another instrument in the mix, resulting in textures rarely heard on singer-songwriter releases.

In the Earth's Fading Light ranges from Gypsy waltzes to dreamy meditations on surviving wrecked relationships. The disc also features a three-quarter-time farewell to the late, great Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham, one of Stykos' musical inspirations. Scottish and French-Canadian music are among her favorites, and she particularly shines on an instrumental version of Scottish folkie Dougie Maclean's "Broken Wings."

In addition to the tributes, the album includes plenty of original Celtic-style jigs. These are as authentic as can be, and Stykos' French-inspired reels sound like they could have been composed in St. Marc-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, instead of Chelsea, Vermont.

It's a pleasure to hear music performed with a lack of testosterone, particularly traditionally themed pieces from locales known for musical machismo. Stykos translates and transforms European folk into her own gorgeous creations with grace and integrity intact.

Although the CD boasts appearances from several scene-stealing talents such as Stykos pal Bela Fleck and Bellatrix bandmates Patti Casey and Susannah Blachly, she is obviously in control of both sound and vibe. Album highlights include Stykos' rhythmic and vocal interplay with Fleck's banjo on "The Delaware Side" and the dreamy, fragile beauty of "Swallow Come Down."

Nearly all the tracks on In the Earth's Fading Light were recorded in sparkling digital at Stykos' home studio. This cozy setting provided her with the time and flexibility to get the results she wanted, and it is sonic ear candy. With skill and ingenuity, Stykos has crafted a rich set of music that bears repeated listening.

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