First listen reviews: Amy Speace, Matraca Berg, Ian Moore, Danny Schmidt, and The Wailin Jennys
It’s been some time since I’ve pulled from my stack of review copy CDs and done a round of first listen reviews for you folks. So long, the CDs which now populate my stack are – many of them – from artists I already know will be of interest to me. For this reason, I think 2011 is going to be a pretty impressive year for new releases. We’ve already gotten that Buddy Miller Majestic Silver Strings disc and Abigail Washburn’s City of Refuge, both of which I feel confident calling some of the best music of the whole year. So, now I’m going to dive into a few other notable releases, and share with you my first impressions. In no particular order:
Amy Speace – Land Like a Bird (Thirty Tigers)
This record opens with a song called “Drive All Night,” which – having clocked a good amount of hours on the road – speaks to a certain part of my muscle memory. Melodically, it strikes me as an underdeveloped song, but it’s the sonic equivalent of watching the dotted white lines tick by late at night. I get it, but at first listen, it doesn’t do anything to pull me into the album. The title track is next, and it sounds like she’s parked the car and is wandering through a field in the middle of nowhere. Ambient breezy noises and things that sound kind of like crickets or distant birds, populate the background. The lyrics come in: “Not much sleep, not much to see in these bricks and mortar,” and now I’m picturing the music video for this song. A product of MTV in the ’80s, I can’t help it sometimes. This song is a little more intrinsically musical, though I’m not sure the instrumentation makes sense to my ear. Skipping to the sixth song test…it’s called “It’s Too Late to Call It a Night.” Now I have the impression this whole record is a little sleepy – not in the sense that it’s boring, but in the sense that it’s making me comfortably tired. This tune is a little Norah Jones-ish, but without the sex. I think I should revisit this record at night. Listening to it mid-morning just doesn’t feel right, and I think the amount of sunshine pouring through my windows is coloring my perspective on this a little too much. Duly noted – I’ll come back to it later.
Matraca Berg – The Dreaming Fields (Dualtone)
Matraca Berg has been away from the recording process for 13 years, and this is her big return. She teamed up with friends and made this record to get her wheels rolling again. The first song – “If I Had Wings” – has a chorus which begins with a bit of a cliche: “If I had wings, I would fly / over the river and into the night.” But, there is an artful way to work cliche into songwriting, and Berg nails it here. “This ain’t no place for angels / no time for talk of sin / we all knew sooner or later it was gonna be me or him,” she sings in the last verse, before lighting back into the chorus. It’s taken the whole song to get the meaning out – a feat so few songwriters understand how to do, much less are capable of pulling off. I think I love this record already. The second song pulls me further in, despite its sleepy sadness. Minimally instrumentalized, with vocals layered only when and where absolutely necessary. When the harmony comes, it’s so close to Berg’s voice, it sounds like an extension of herself. Beautiful.
I don’t want to speed through this album, but for the sake of these first-listen reviews, I’ll cut to the sixth song test anyway. It’s the title track. It starts with echoic, low-register, chunky piano chords. Berg’s voice strikes a warm contrast, huskily pulling along the upper reaches of her register. It’s a rather powerful instrument, and this is a stirring story-song. No other instrumentation ever arrives – just a piano part. The piano is arranged for holding down a melody very close to the one Berg is singing – a technique which is more there to underscore her vocals than anything else. No – wait, there’s a cello back there. So subtle and well-composed, you hardly notice. Yes, I love this record already, but it’s time to move on through the stack.