Arts » Noise

The raw and the booked

Songwriters expand the Americana vocabulary

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Caitlin Cary
I’m Staying Out
Yep Rock

You’d have to be listening pretty hard to hear a trace of anything identifiably No Depressionistic about I’m Staying Out, the third release from former Whiskeytown second-fiddle Caitlin Cary. If Waltzie and While You Weren’t Looking leaned towards almost reflexive country-rock and Anglophile folk, I’m Staying Out corrects course a few degrees toward what looks more or less like adult contemporary. The polestars of the genre are Aimee Mann on the pop-craft-and-insight end of the spectrum, and Lucinda Williams on the Jesus-and-sin end, and to push the conceit too far, Cary is right down the middle, in Mary Chapin Carp-enter territory. And in fact Chapin Carpenter lends backing vocals to three of these tracks, though you can hardly make her out at all—just enough to tell that that’s not Ryan Adams pitching in for the North Carolina home team, as it was on While You Weren’t Looking.

It’s not easy to hang a tag on Cary. She emphatically does not rock, even when her band occasionally rocks around her. She doesn’t show the inventive ambition of, say, Fairport Convention. Unlike Whiskeytown, she hardly twangs at all (“Please Break My Heart” conditionally excepted). There’s not a punk bone in her body of work. She doesn’t growl or strut or yell “bitch” or wear hip huggers or otherwise do much in the way of seeming to draw attention to herself or her music, and she barely even plays her damn fiddle. But she’s got a voice of such unwavering purity that even the thorough even-handedness of the production and the sometimes-frustrating tastefulness of it all is easily borne in trade.

Lyrically, Cary reads a bit like what she has been: a student of creative writing, and of the short story in particular. Former teacher and New Southern Lit doyenne Lee Smith contributes a conversational afterword to “Cello Girl,” though again, you can hardly tell it’s there mixed down in the back, and good luck actually deciphering the words.

Cary’s got a batch of concerns here, largely domestic, from the restlessness of the title song to the cuddly lazy-day manifesto of “Sleeping in on Sunday” to the when-I’m-sixty-four wist of “Beauty Fades Away.”

Aside from the title track, all the songs here have co-writers, so a certain scatteredness is to be expec-ted, but sooner or later most everything on I’m Staying Out comes home to romance of one sort or another, and a little romance can get a lot cloying fast. But to hear the theme delivered with a hard clarity of careful intelligence to match the barely-adorned clarity of the voice—“But the pony you wanted when you were a child/Is dead in the ground by now,” for instance—is a rare and subtle treat.Lucinda Williams
World Without Tears
Lost Highway

Lucinda Williams joke: A third grader in Texas asked her teacher last year what she thought of Lucinda Williams. She had the line “you took my joy and I want it back” in her head, and she was perfec-tly earnest as she told her teacher that she sure hoped Lucinda Williams got her jaw back soon, because she just really didn’t sing very well without it.

That same slurry sleight-of-tongue shows up again on World Without Tears, in a song called “Words Fell.” See if you can guess how that one drawls out of Lucinda Williams’ world-weary mouth.

Williams is beginning, just ever so slightly, to sound like a caricature of herself. But maybe that’s what happens when you’re honest-to-god dissipating in a dark room somewhere (which is what more than a little of World Without Tears sounds like), or maybe it’s just what happens when you actually get what you want.

What Williams wanted, if one judges “Fruits of my Labor” autobiographical, was to be a star: “Come to my world and witness the way things have changed/ Cos I finally did it baby, I got out of La Grange.”

It’s not like Williams grew up in LaGrange or anything, but Austinites will appreciate the reference, and Austin is where Williams has hung her critical hat. But Los Angeles sounds more like where she’s wearing it, and it suits her well, in a dissipated sort of way. It adds to her dirty-fingernailed glamour.

But then “Minneapolis.” Suddenly Williams’ syruped voice is warbling through a vibrato—apologies to James McMurtry—you coulda thrown a cat through. No one ever accused Williams of excessive becomingness, but bleating her way through the endless vowels of “Minneapolis” is unbecoming to the nth. And “American Dreams” is the kind of stock footage from the underbelly of the beast that belongs in a lesser light’s catalog.

But man there’s some good stuff here. “Righ-teously” is a full dose of Lucinda the horny cat, ass in the air and just as ready to prowl back purring after a swift kick to the ribs. “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings” has the Stooge-y stomp of Alejandro Escovedo at his rocking Buick McKane best and sounds, for some reason, like it could be about him, too.

“Those Three Days” (“did you love me forever for those three days?”) brings back pining Lucinda, and offers public radio station managers an overdue incentive to introduce the where-is-it-when-you-need-it phrase “so fucking tired” to the Americana airwaves. And “People Talkin’”—despite the overly folksy apostrophe—is everything Sheryl Crow could be, if only Sheryl Crow had all of her bones broken with a hammer and her mouth kicked in.

Punchline: When a woman sounds like that, you don’t make fun of her drawl, punk.

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