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Women with strange voices can go a long way in the world of grown-up pop. Just ask Liz Phair, who has parlayed the weakest set of pipes this side of whoever sang for the Waitresses into a provocative and closely watched career as alt-pop’s favorite sexpot. Or Victoria Williams. Or, for that matter, Björk, who may very well have the range of an opera star—though everyone’s favorite Icelandic womanchild seems so hellbent on convincing us she’s the heir apparent to Nina Hagen that it’s sometimes tough to tell.
Then there’s Kate Jacobs, the Hoboken, N.J.–based songstress who shares both a hometown and a knack for twangy country-pop with chronic y’alternative underachiever Amy Rigby. And a certain way with the high notes, too—though it should be noted that Rigby has one of the oddest and most intriguing voices around, an unholy cross between a helium-addled Dolly Parton and a small child sitting on a washing machine during the spin cycle.
Jacobs also has a Dolly fetish, and like Rigby, she can’t quite make good on it—hard as she obviously tries. Indeed, somewhere just below the surface of “Your Big Sister,” the swaying, organ-fueled ditty that opens Jacobs’ fourth album, You Call That Dark, you can hear many years of a young girl practicing “Jolene” in front of the bedroom mirror. “I know her and I have got one too,” Jacobs sings in a pinched and pensive warble. “They’re much prettier than me and you/…They pay the price of home, throw away their youth.”
Now, for my money, Juliana Hatfield’s more direct approach to similar subject matter “My Sister” (“I hate my sister, she’s such a bitch/…I love my sister, she’s the best”) is head and shoulders above Jacobs’ more temperate treatment. And when the lyrics start scolding the younger sibling in a nasty paternal voice—“A little time in hell will help you grow,” indeed!—your eyes will likely roll on reflex. Few things are less rock ’n’ roll, after all, than the sound of the adults’ voices on Charlie Brown specials.
As the album unfolds, it becomes clear that its first tune is more thematically than musically representative. On Dark’s very next song, “Lavender Line,” Jacobs intones, “A family is a bitter thing.” The track is a ringing country waltz whose graceful chord changes are undercut by lyrics that render childhood as a shadowy and inescapable vortex: “So you fill up your heart/With that old house and home/And they stay with you, wherever you go,” Jacobs offers in an utterly hopeless voice. And “God Bless Ione,” a bashing, name-dropping rocker, seems to thank the Almighty for putting Daddy in his grave before insinuating that it was Eastern philosophy that finally put the man at peace.
At least “Life Can Be Sweet” tries to be optimistic. It’s got a sprightly beat, and there’s absolutely no denying the seductive power of the tune’s pretty country harmonies. But c’mon: Just how much can you expect from a number written from the perspective of a dying (or is it suicidal?) mother making a last-wish list for her daughter? “And be sure she sees the diaries,” Jacobs instructs some trusted interlocutor. “The good ones now, the hard ones later, oh.”
OK, OK. Like all quasi-confessional poetry, “Life Can Be Sweet”—along with much of the rest of the sarcastically titled Dark—is, shall we say, a bit much. It’s melodramatic, fragile to a fault, and above all, very, very weepy. Seriously, any number of these tunes could easily be turned into a Lifetime Movie of the Week with a bare minimum of script-doctoring.
But though Jacobs’ latest does seem perfectly designed for bringin’ on the heartbreak, it’s still a fetching, surprisingly nuanced LP, a somber collection of reflective and well-wrought ditties meant, one imagines, for listening to alone. If you go that route, though, just be aware of the risks. The old-lady-and-a-farm tale “Helen Has a House,” for example, ends with a bracingly pragmatic moral: “Don’t bend your back bearing other people’s crosses/You are small/Tend your garden.” And on “What a World, What a God,” Jacobs serves up a fingerpicked short story that recalls Ron Sexsmith at his most incisive and idiosyncratic: The track’s Gaelic-speaking protagonist is a man dying in a hospital who refuses medication because he thinks the nurse is asking for money when she’s really offering him morphine. Soft as Jacobs’ music is, it can be pretty tough stuff, too.
Shannon Wright’s newest album, Over the Sun, is tough, I suppose—but it sure ain’t pretty. Poetic and promising but utterly drained of anything even remotely connected to the pleasure principle, the disc is yet another in the long line of shoulda-been-great records that proves an old indie-rock axiom: Nearly everything Steve Albini touches turns to shit.
Consider, for instance, disc-opener “With Closed Eyes,” which features a lock-step arrangement of brittle, go-nowhere guitars, bashing drums, and plenty of atonal vocalizing. Or “Portray,” the follow-up, a five-and-a-half-minute torture chamber that makes a mockery of the significant musical chops Wright showcased earlier in her career. And the set-closing “Birds” merely sums up all of the record’s one-dimensional sonic ideas: It’s a scale-descending guitar riff masquerading as a song and gussied up (barely) with Wright’s buried chanting and a spastic (and way-too-high-in-the-mix) snare drum—a pointlessly abrasive “technique” Albini has used to mar otherwise fine albums by everyone from the Pixies to Nirvana.
All of which is quite the shame. Singer/multi-instrumentalist Wright is an accomplished indie vet whose mighty Jacksonville, Fla., outfit, Crowsdell, never came close to getting its due. Beginning with 1999’s Flightsafety, Wright’s solo career has generally made good on the promise of her previous band, with Wright proving to be a fairly sophisticated songwriter and studio tactician. She’s even gotten the better of Albini on earlier, lower-impact collaborations with the Chicago-based “recordist.” (See, for example, 2001’s entirely listenable Dyed in the Wool.)
Wright doesn’t fare nearly so well on Over the Sun, however. When the same thing happened on PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, that singer felt compelled to redress that collection of terrific but poorly rendered songs by issuing the vastly superior 4-Track Demos. The far-less-celebrated Wright, unfortunately, may never have that chance. Painful and aimless, Over the Sun sounds like a career-killer. CP