(Thunder Ridge Records, CD, digital download)
On her latest record, Wyoming Territory, Vermont’s Kristina Stykos continues her ascent as one of the state’s premier Americana songwriters. A road-weary work filled with laments on life, love and longing, Stykos’ fifth album plays like a local answer to Lucinda Williams’ own fifth release, her seminal 1998 Grammy-winning record, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
Just to be clear, Stykos is no Lucinda Williams. But there are rather striking parallels to be drawn between both songwriters’ fifth albums. Both are rooted in dusty, straightforward country-rock. Both center on themes of time and place as keys to identity. And, perhaps most overtly, both contain songs called “Jackson” that serve as album centerpieces.
Stykos’ Jackson is in Wyoming, which was her muse for this record. And unlike Williams, who was leaving Jackson, Miss. — and wasn’t going to cry about it, wink, wink — Stykos’ Jackson represents the ultimate destination, something like a great western promised land where she’ll be made whole again. Or, as she sings in her raspy alto, “My heart’s a mansion just for me. / Until we meet in Jackson.”
Much as Williams enlisted a star-studded cast for Car Wheels — Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Jim Lauderdale, etc. — Stykos has surrounded herself with a veritable all-star ensemble of Vermont talent on Wyoming Territory. Longtime collaborator Bow Thayer turns up on bass guitar throughout. Ace fiddler Patrick Ross lends his soaring chops to several cuts, as does keyboardist Chas Eller. Jeff Berlin turns in some fine performances on drums. And Vermont expat Mark Spencer chips in with typically excellent lead-guitar work.
But the most impressive aspect of Stykos’ latest effort is the songwriter herself. She long ago earned her reputation as one of the state’s finest lyricists. But never has she sounded so focused or refined, combining the straightforward prose of a blue-collar bard with deeply poetic sensitivity. Indeed, many of the record’s most compelling moments are those that find Stykos alone with her guitar. For example, “The Stars Divide,” on which she cautions a loved one — whether a former lover or someone else isn’t clear, but hardly matters — to never let his passion be consumed by reason. She sings, “And promise me before you sleep / To never let the stars divide / Your raging river spirit from / Your elemental eyes.”
Wyoming Territory by Kristina Stykos is available at kristinastykos.com.