Reviewed by Henry L. Carrigan Jr.
On the fourth album released on her label, Home Perm, Ashleigh Flynn continues to do what she's always done best: seduce us with lively stories backed by tender, raucous, and rollicking instrumentals. In the tales on "A Million Stars," Flynn celebrates and recovers for our view the lives of the numerous women - some well-known, such as Calamity Jane, but others unnamed - who participated in the westward expansion but whose exploits often go untold. Her long-time collaborator Chris Funk, of The Decemberists and Black Prairie, produced the album and plays multiple instruments on it, and her pals Todd Snider, Annalisa Tornfelt and others join her on the excursion.
Every track showcases Flynn's effortless ability to range over musical genres from bluegrass to rock to jazz. The album opens with a spare arrangement of banjo, guitars, organ and shuffling drums - The Devil Called Your Name - and moves quickly into Dirty Hands and Dirty Feet, a bluegrass romp featuring Tornfelt's tasty fiddling that celebrates Loretta Lynn, as well as Patty Loveless and Kathy Mattea. In sprawling, booming New Orleans jazz, and in a sound reminiscent of The Beatles' Rocky Raccoon, Flynn winks and nods at the wiles, guile, and grit of "Stumptown's fairest queen," Portland's infamous bootlegger known only as "Prohibition Rose." How the West was Won, a tale of Calamity Jane, gallops out of the gate, rocking with the riffs of the Eagles Outlaw Man, , and the refrain "Janie had herself a horse" recalls Aerosmith's lyric "Janie got a gun." The gospel-inflected See the Light features Snider as the "voice of reason" who condemns irrational religious arguments and urges, like the song's lyrics, that we all look for the light shining in each of us, and the song concludes with a sweet angelic chorus echoing an "amen."
Flynn's wry, inventive, and slyly humorous stories, soaring voice, and eloquent command of diverse musical genres shine brightly upon us, casting out darkness and lighting the corners of our world.