Sunday, May 23, 2010

Review of Lucy Wainwright Roche's Last CD, 8 More

I've just returned from 10 days in Indonesia. On the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Urbana up to O'Hare, I listened several times to Lucy Wainwright Roche's EP 8 More, the successor to her first CD, 8 Songs. It's rare that I let a disc spin for a second time -- I'm usually eager to move on to something new. But with 8 More, I was ready to give it three listens in a row, as I was enjoying it so much. Not having ever loaded the disc onto my computer, I wasn't going to have it with me in Indonesia. But the songs were still with me -- going around in my head there in the land of nasi goreng and Bluebird taxis.

I had seen Lucy do her two-song showcase set at Falcon Ridge two years ago (as mentioned and photographed here) and then saw her do a great opening set for Over the Rhine back in December at the Old Town School of Folk Music (as described here). (Ellen plays her music regularly and also mentioned her strong showing at the 2009 Folk Alliance Conference here.) I had listened to 8 More after the Chicago show but sort of set it aside. Now I can't get enough of it. It was the first thing on the stereo when I landed at O'Hare two days ago.

Why is it such a good disc?

Overall, the production is pleasantly sparse, letting Lucy's voice and lyrics shine through, yet it is not so sparse as to feel empty -- there is a lot of warmth in the sound throughout the album.

The disc opens with a rhythmic acoustic guitar line putting down the beat. Lucy starts singing: "They're breaking up; / I'm breaking down, / Leaving town in the rain / This place has needed for a while / Needed for a while." Add electric guitar for the second stanza. Add bass when the bridge section comes around. Add some pleasant soft-picked guitar at the end of the bridge. Turn up the reverb on Lucy's voice to increase the richness and warmth of the tone. Perfect build -- it never overwhelms but instead draws you in; the song never becomes larger than Lucy's voice, making sure that all the lyrics are clear, so that you don't miss the subtle change to "They're breaking up; / I'm breaking out," for instance.

The second song "Snare Drum" is a brilliant snapshot of Middle America. Addressed to a boy, who is told at the end of each verse "And you'll play a snare drum solo in the Friday football light," the song describes economic decay, the toll of war on local communities and the stress of parental warfare. Add in a nice soaring chorus, and this CD already has its second winner.

"University Drive" is about leaving town and leaving a man behind. It gets the sights and sounds right and has a catchy numerical hook in the first line of the chorus: "One, two, three / Two, two, three, one: / Count out the dishes, / They're almost done."

Then we get a spare electric guitar riff as Lucy asks us, "Isn't it funny?" Soon some percussion clicks and some synthesized chords come in low. After asking again, "Isn't it funny?" Lucy asks, "Isn't it simple after all?" and then starts singing the great chorus for the city of Chicago: "Goodnight, Chicago, / You have skies as red as any summer. / Goodnight, Chicago, / You are mine, / Tonight / Goodnight, Chicago, / You have eyes as bright as any child. / Goodnight, Chicago, / You are mine, / Tonight." Thanks to the beauty of multitracking, Lucy harmonizes with herself, but the production gets this just right, and the chorus just sucks you in, leaving you flying above the Chicago skyline. The second verse has newly playful instrumentation. And by the end of the song, you can just imagine that chorus coming around again and again. This one was great live (with just an acoustic guitar) back in December and is great on the album, too. (I also want it mashed-up with the Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling" if someone wants to get to work on that.)

Batting four-for-four, Lucy keeps going with "Superman," a song by the Crash Test Dummies that features a comparison of the barbaric Tarzan to the "real gent" Clark Kent and reminding us in another catchy chorus that "Superman never made any money / From saving the world from Solomon Grundy. / Sometimes I despair the world will never see / Another man / Like him."

"Spring Song" rolls along in a pleasant fashion, continuing the moving-on theme of "Awhile" and "University Drive" with its message that "It's spring when the year ends, / And I'm not coming back."

An acoustic guitar strum and a new travel destination -- "Coming into London twilight blue" -- welcome us to "Poison." The chorus on this one gets a little thicker with the layering of Lucy's voice, and the imagery in the song is darker: "Nothing like a sister / To break your heart; / Nothing like a spider / To drain it." I haven't quite figured it all out yet, but it seems fairly bleak: "Like ice in the morning / There's nothing much left here / To hold or to have."

The CD ends with Martha Plimpton joining Lucy for a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart." (And be sure to ask Lucy sometime for the story of being too shy to give her CD to The Boss.)

So why do I say that this is a review of her last CD? Because according to Ellen's playlist from last Sunday -- not yet posted here -- Lucy's new full-length disc is out. Well, I, for one, am looking forward to hearing it!


3shells said...

Amen to all that. Her first one is real good too.

Ellen Stanley said...

Them's fighting words, Matt...will post my playlists, I promise!