Songwriting and poetry, while sharing so many similarities, continue to be two very different art forms, each with their own freedoms and constraints. Some artists bridge the divide single-handedly, churning out lyrical lines that knock back the breath of the listener, demanding more attention than a single listen might afford. Other artists take on the challenge of stitching whole-cloth poems into a quilt of newly crafted music. The ones who do it well meet with the same breath-taking results.
On Bull Frogs Croon (and Other Songs), Aoife O’Donovan collaborated with co-producer/violinist Jeremy Kittel and Louisville Symphony Orchestra conductor Teddy Abrams to set the poems of Peter Sears — Oregon’s 2014 poet laureate — to mesmerizingly delicate music brought to life by violinist Brittany Haas, bassist Paul Kowert, and violist Mario Gotoh. Few singers in the folk world would be as ambitious or successful as O’Donovan is in this particular pursuit, but she’s never been one to walk away from a new adventure. And bringing some of the most innovative players in the milieu along for the ride certainly doesn’t hurt her chances.
The “Bull Frogs Croon” suite consists of three captivating movements — “Night Fishing,” “The Darkness,” and “Valentine” — each a different poem by Sears, who passed away in 2017. His death made the release of these pieces even more important to O’Donovan and company, as a way to honor his legacy. And honor, they do. Much like O’Donovan’s voice on its own, the pieces evoke mourning and glory, tenderness and defiance, simultaneously.
Rounding out the EP, O’Donovan revisits two tunes previously recorded by Crooked Still, a past O’Donovan collaboration: “Lakes of Pontchartrain,” a lilting Irish folk song, and “Pretty Bird,” a Hazel Dickens classic. Even coming from such disparate sources as these five songs do, they don’t feel out of place alongside each other. Thanks to O’Donovan and company’s thoughtful representations, the divides between them are beautifully bridged.