Since making her debut back in the 1970s as a gritty rock singer with an ear for a mean pop hook, Cindy Bullens has moved ever farther into Americana territory. It’s a direction that has suited her well, as her plainspoken, straightforward songwriting fits well with country and folk conventions. Bullens’s latest, Howling Trains and Barking Dogs, finds the singer-songwriter collaborating with some of Nashville’s most respected writers and performers, resulting in one of the strongest albums of her late career.
Bullens’s harder-edged past brings a rugged, forceful tone to songs like “Can’t Stop This Train” and opener “Love Gone Good.” Acting as her own producer, Bullens shows spot-on instincts, leaving heavy reverb in the electric guitar riffs that drive “In a Perfect World” and “I Didn’t Know,” and using brushed snares for the percussion line on the melancholy “All My Angels.” The record impresses for its simplicity. Bullens doesn’t mince words in her lyrics—she and co-writer Radney Foster even engage in a winking bit of auto-critique on the spirited “Whistles and Bells”—or in her arrangements.
With so many Americana albums in this vein turning into exercises in stuffy self-seriousness, Howling Trains and Barking Dogs is a refreshing change of pace. Not only does the album have an actual pulse, which puts it ahead of recent albums from similar acts like Lucinda Williams and Mary Chapin Carpenter, but it also lacks any pretenses of being more than what it is. Considering that Bullens is currently campaigning for a state senate seat in her native Maine, that Howling Trains and Barking Dogs lacks any kind of agenda speaks volumes about Bullens’s approach to her craft. She doesn’t need to come right out and say that she values economy, compassion, and insight, because the terrific songs here make those points on their own terms.