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Review: Sera Cahoone, 'From Where I Started'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

Sera Cahoone: <em>From Where I Started</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Sera Cahoone: From Where I Started

For more than a decade, singer-songwriter Sera Cahoone has specialized in a shy, introverted kind of folk music: She started her career at the back of the stage, playing drums for Carissa's Wierd and Band Of Horses, and the solo songs that followed reflected the gently unassuming nature of a singer who couldn't showboat in the spotlight if she tried. Instead, Cahoone's first three records — a self-titled 2006 debut, 2008's Only As The Day Is Long and 2012's Deer Creek Canyon, all great — settle in as front-porch comfort music, with a lyrical and sonic emphasis on soothing the listener's aches and woes.

But on From Where I Started, Cahoone's first album in five years, something's different, and it's clear in the first words of the opening track. "First years I ever played my, my songs for anyone / My back was toward them and I sang down to the ground. / Got so tired of being nervous that I finally turned around." That song, "Always Turn Around," marks the beginning of a clear shift toward putting more of herself into each warm bit of storytelling.

Thankfully, Cahoone has lost none of her easygoing approachability along the way; her songs still amble sweetly and gently, propelled by a voice that radiates kindness. But, starting with "Always Turn Around," From Where I Started tackles personal realities in ways its predecessors generally didn't. In "Ladybug," she pays empathetic, finely detailed tribute to a cousin killed by a domestic partner — "All the signs were right there / We just couldn't believe" — while "Up To Me" offers a bracingly grown-up take on lifetime love. ("I wanna be your lover / Like no other / But it's not really up to me.")

Still, Cahoone remains fascinated with contentment, and From Where I Started closes by painting a picture of domestic bliss undisturbed by the constant churn of the world around it. In "House Our Own," amid a sweet haze of slide guitars, she examines and celebrates the way the right relationship can redefine our concept of home. For all the album's detours into tragedy and self-doubt, it's natural that Sera Cahoone would close the proceedings where her solo career started: in the pursuit of freedom from the prison of a worried mind.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)