Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Eliza Carthy may very well be my favorite singer. Her combination of vocal power and restrained passion tends to produced renditions of songs that immediately become definitive to my ears. Her songwriting, on the other hand, is something I haven't quite gotten. My favorite recordings are those, like Anglicana and Rice, that primarily stick to traditional material. Her "pop" folk-rock records are a taste that I've not yet acquired. Until now . . . I think. Her latest, Dreams of Breathing Underwater, is a record that, unlike Angels and Cigarettes, her last recording of original songs, will likely remain in my CD player for quite some time.
I think the problem with Eliza is her lack of irony. Her lyrics tend not to scan, but that doesn't necessarily phase me. I'm a big fan of Jenny Lewis, who shares a certain lyrical irregularity with Eliza. But Jenny's songs are filled with irony and subtle humor. Eliza's are not, and her music is not. It's hard to imagine her writing these tragicomic songs about anyone other than herself. And occasionally we get a little more personal information than we'd like. I really don't need to know, for instance, that she has "given blow jobs on couches to men who didn't want me anymore," as she wrote in "The Company of Men." Of course, I may be like those people who think that Richard Thompson "should lighten up." Maybe I don't get it. It wouldn't be the first time. But the one real misstep here illustrates the problem. Had "Mr. Magnifico" been sung by Richard Thompson, with tongue firmly planted in cheek and electric guitar set on stun, it would have worked. Here it's semi-narrated by one Tim Matthew with obbligato by a trumpet-playing refugee from Marty Robbins' band. The effect is more Benny Hill than Monty Python, to exhaust my knowledge of British TV humour.
The good news, though is that there is just one of these (OK, maybe two, I haven't decided about "Little Bigman" yet) and that Eliza has written a brace of excellent songs--including "Rows of Angels," "Rosalie," "Like I Care," "Hug You Like a Mountain," and "Lavenders," and that's the first time I've ever been able to say that. I may not be quoting any of her lyrics as my favorites, but the wedding of music to lyric and vocal on this CD ranks with her classic trad material, and the CD is marked by numerous brilliant musical moments--such as the gorgeous and loose folk string sections that come and go throughout the CD; the distorted guitar, horn, and accordion line that ends "Like I Care"; the luscious vocal trio (with Eddie Reader and Heather McCleod) on "Lavenders"; and the stunning combination of sweet violins, wah-wah-ish guitar noises, and ashcan drum-kittery on "Simple Things," to name just a few. Though hearing her voice on this recording in some ways makes this old fogey long for another of her trad records, I have a feeling this one will stay with me for quite awhile and may soon rank with my favorite "new song" recordings. Time will tell. For now, I'll just go give it another spin.