I went to college with Katie Buono – we would play the occasional open mic night at the local coffeehouse, but the only time we actually played pop music together was when we played a version of “Julia” together on a friend’s recital. Between those firsthand experiences and my peripheral knowledge about what she was up to, I knew she was one of the people at school who knew what she was doing. So I should’ve been prepared for Down by the Riverside, the solo album she wrapped up shortly after I left Oberlin.
I should’ve been, but I wasn’t.
Down by the Riverside fits in perfectly with some of the other records I’ve covered for BoTR, namely Moon of Neptune and Elyse. She’s clearly listened to her share of freak-folk, and Riverside unfolds in the same vein as many of the genre’s heavy hitters. “So Many Days,” the title track, and “Of All the Things We Are” in particular could pass for Vashti Bunyan or an early Joanna Newsom cut for the breathy delivery and propulsive rhythm part.
There’s something to be said for doing one’s homework, but Down by the Riverside works best when Buono flips the script. Aside from her ear for folk songs, she has a knack for bedroom-style production. Riverside works best when she’s able to marry the two. “My Baby’s Mama” and “A Memory” are based around found-sound fragments Buono found on old cassettes, but rather than leaving them intact she seamlessly transplants them into her ready-made folk songs. “Something in the Air” shows off her ability as an arranger, but like the rest of the record, it’s not obtrusive.
Subtlety is perhaps the best word to describe this record, and Buono’s got it in spades. Occasionally, though, she falls on her own sword – the best records of this kind aren’t so subtle that they’re particularly tough to latch on to. When Vashti sings “Winter is blue,” you don’t quite know what she means, but you believe her. It’s a turn of phrase that could mean a few things, but all of them are equally true. Riverside is as evocative an album as anything Buono’s predecessors made, but it’s also more guarded. The devil is in the details with this record, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. Still, that’s not a bad place to be, and it’s a testament to Buono’s writing that I’m asking her to come out more in her songs rather than to retreat. Those open mics at Oberlin would’ve been much more fun if everyone there had her gift for restraint.