Female singers-songwriters move heart ... sometimes, hips

 

Matraca Berg
Sunday Morning To Saturday Night
(Rising Tide)


I was setting up an interview with Rodney Crowell of The Cicadas, when his publicist turned me on to Matraca Berg's latest album. The publicist penned the liner notes to the disc, and urged me to give it a spin. I'm glad I did. There are usually less than a handful of country oriented discs that break into my pop-rock-alternative world every year, and this has easily become the frontrunner in 1997. Berg has an easy manner and keen pen that makes the listener a friend and fan before the easy rollin' first track "Along For The Ride" slows to a close. This is an album of heart, soul and inspiration; the kind of record that moves from yearning to yowling in an offhanded heartbeat. Berg has a sure pen that brings to mind other country boundary breakers like Steve Earle and Mary-Chapin Carpenter.

On "Back In The Saddle" she offers a cleverly turned anthem to lust for country and city girls alike:

"Oh put me in your big ol' pickup truck
take me to the rodeo
I don't know a thing about broncin' bucks and I can't do-ci-do
But I can put you back in the saddle, baby
yeah stand you up tall
I can put you back in the saddle , baby
yeah and that ain't all."

And in "Some People Fall, Some People Fly," she deals with the chances of love as she sings "out here on the edge/love dares us to try/baby some people fall, but some people fly."

The piano and viola backed ballad "Back When We Were Beautiful" is a piece of pure non-genre songwriting about the depths of emotion in old age and contemplation of past life and love. It needs to be heard, savored and cried over.

Berg is a talented songwriter with a heart-grabbing voice. If you only buy one country-tinged album this year, make it this one.

 

Beth Nielsen Chapman
Sand And Water
(Reprise)


There are some eulogies that you want to hear over and over and over again. Beth Nielsen Chapman's Sand and Water is one of them. Dedicated to her husband, who died of cancer in 1994, this is an album celebrating the precious moments of love which we are granted—too few, as she laments. It speaks to the unassailable ache of the heart that has truly lost, and remembers fondly a love that lives beyond the grave. In the title track, backed by gently lilting guitar and calming keyboards, Chapman frames her emotions perfectly:

"All alone I didn't like the feeling
all alone I sat and cried
all alone I had to find some meaning
in the center of the pain I felt inside
I will see you in the light of a thousand suns
I will hear you in the sound of the waves
I will know you when I come, as we all will come
through the doors beyond the grave."

While Chapman first made her name as a country songwriter, this album is firmly a soft pop creation, an adult contemporary singer-songwriter document of midlife crisis, vaulting emotions, and ultimately, acceptance. There are some mild doses of country twang here and there, especially in the easy stomp of "Heads Up For the Wrecking Ball," which features Bonnie Raitt on backing vocals and guitar. But much of the album works in a less genre-defined palette; with unhurried strokes, Chapman paints pictures of bittersweet longings against backdrops of lolling percussion, airy guitar and sweeping piano strains. The lounge rhumba of "Fair Enough" sounds like Gloria Estefan in lullabye mode, while the acoustic guitar-backed "Seven Shades of Blue" hangs on the same precious attention to lyric that makes Nanci Griffith's albums such a joy to lose yourself in.

Chapman's is a quiet voice, but a voice filled with honesty, stripped of any big production pretention. When the album ends with a song written in the character of her husband leaving a last wish (almost a less melocramatic moment from Ghost), you'll bow your head in grief and reaffirmation:

"you are everything you want to be
so just let your heart reach out to me
keep my light in your eyes
say goodnight not boodbye."

This is a special album: both a loving eulogy and a heartfelt pledge to live each moment in renewed understanding and appreciation.

 


Jill Sobule
Happy Town
(Atlantic)


Everything I ever needed to know I learned from a Jill Sobule album...

Listen.

Jill has crafted a head nodding, often blackly humorous album that has hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) words of wisdom for all.

You should know this about love before you dive in and get burned:

"Love can be so tender
but you always must remember
love is never equal, after all"

"Love Is Never Equal"

For everyone who's ever wished "fat folks to their grave" or held "disdain for mankind," you're bumming Jill (and me) out. Because...

"I don't wanna get bitter
I don't wanna get cruel
I don't wanna get old before I have to...
I don't wanna get bitter like you."
—"Bitter"

Thinking about soliciting the effects of all those popular attitude-adjusting drugs? Well, consider this:

"I used to go up
used to go down
now I'm just even here in Happy Town.
I don't get excited
but nor do I frown....
I used to sit under a gloomy cloud of gray
and now the sun is out and my whole world is beige."

—"Happy Town"

Sobule, who extolled the virtues of being a "Supermodel" and confided that "I Kissed A Girl" on her last disc, has a whole backpack of good advice and wry observations packed into Happy Town. A twangy country guitar underscores the ballad of another "Barren Egg," which both celebrates the freedom of single (childless)-hood, while at the same time bemoaning its lonliness. In "Half A Heart," which works in a jazzy woodwind section, she asks what to do when you're halfway to a real love. And in the funky island bounce of "When My Ship Comes In," she sings of a character who daydreams about the ultimate vengeance in a taken for granted relationship:

"when my ship comes in
I'll be standing at the rail
waving you goodbye
you'll be standing on the beach wondering why."

Happy Town bogs down when Sobule gets acoustic and meanders through a series of character paintings of emotionally wounded women. But there are a handfull of brilliant strokes on Happy Town, led by the Frente-waifish piano and drum pound of "Bitter." Everyone who who has a tendency for feeling sorry for their lot or who makes fun of or enjoys the misfortunes of others should have to listen to this song nonstop for a week.

Actually, the song is so catchy, aside from the serious lyric, that I'd be happy to volunteer for that "punishment."