Classic Americana Albums: Indigo Girls “Swamp Ophelia” (Epic, 1994)

Sometimes, arriving late to something like a previously unknown band or a music genre or perhaps an album that everyone seems to have owned and played forever is not always a bad thing. It provides the exciting opportunity to trawl through a back catalogue, to seek out live performances online and best of all to track when a newly discovered artist is touring locally. Living and working in Boston in about 1999, a colleague was playing songs in the office by a group unknown to me on her cassette player (young ‘uns….look it up). Upon enquiry, I was informed it was The Indigo Girls, the tracks being ‘Closer to Fine’ and ‘Hammer and a Nail’. My introduction to the musical delights of Emily Saliers and Amy Ray was complete.

Whilst the aforementioned tracks are not from the album the subject of this piece, they did certainly tweak an interest and a resultant search through their canon culminated in the discovery of ‘Swamp Ophelia‘. Released in 1994, this was the duo’s 5th studio album and marked a step forward in the band’s development, both in terms of maturity of song writing and also identifying a sound that sets them aside from other singer/songwriter entities in the folk/rock space. Recorded in Nashville and produced by Peter Collins, in addition to the normal acoustic guitar that tends to dominate folk records, the album has oodles of strings, keyboards, horns and plenty of electric guitar.

The contrasting writing styles of Saliers and Ray, deeper and folkier versus edgier and rockier respectively, help to determine the wonderful variety of sounds on the album and alternating each of their songs (largely) keeps it all very listenable. ‘Fugitive’ is not the kind of track you would expect to open a folk album, with horns and an almost anthemic guitar lead, and Ray’s other stand out contributions are built on more excellent horns and strings, pace changes and, in the case of ‘Touch Me Fall’, an almost punky finish. More plainly emotional, Saliers’ folk songs superbly balance the rocky elements, with interesting arrangements, sophisticated lyrics and beautiful phrasing, particularly on ‘Least Complicated’ and ‘Power of Two’. The Indigo Girls signature skill is unquestionably their lush harmonies which are in abundance on ‘Swamp Ophelia’, their voices perfectly combining on almost every track to create a whole seemingly greater than its parts.

Not that it matters so – the tawdry subject of commercial success counts for little when achieving album ‘classicdom’ – ‘Swamp Ophelia’ nevertheless managed a peak of number 9 on the Billboard Top 200 and was certified platinum in the US. It is a classic album of its genre; powerful, emotional folk alongside rocky guitars and horns, well balanced and thoughtful production, and harmonies to die for. Classic.

Author: Russell Murphy

Can't get enough of this Americana stuff. Live or recorded, it's all good to me....

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