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Albums often have a catalyst—a new love, a breakup, a close encounter with death, world events, or just the fact that a contract demands it—sometimes obvious and sometimes not. The spark for Or So It Seemed, the latest album from D.C.’s Sara Curtin, seems to be simply existing. Or, rather, existing as a woman and a musician in 2017.
The emotional spectrum Curtin covers over the course of nine songs makes it impossible to pigeonhole Or So It Seemed as any particular kind of record. At times it’s angry and at times it’s anxious, but it’s also content and hopeful. It’s a full portrait of a human being: nuanced, complex, and contradictory.
“Oh, I’ve been meaning to call you,” Curtin sings to open the album on “Blame Time.” It’s unclear at first who the half-hearted excuse is addressing. Most will assume a lover and that Curtin is sheepish, but as the laid-back cascading guitar builds into something brighter and more dominant she remembers wild times in Brooklyn. “I’ve been meaning to forgive you. Swear I meant to,” Curtin sings, half-lamenting the struggle to keep old friendships alive and half-celebrating her freedom from them.
It’s a perfect lead-in to the slithering garage-rock of the title track. Curtin draws confidence from the swampy rock ’n’ roll to hide what may be her deepest insecurities. “Used to be an artist, or so it seemed,” she sings before the crippling kicker in the chorus, “Oh, what a waste of time/ To hold on to what used to be mine.”
Or So It Seemed builds throughout its strong first half. “When Was The Last Time” layers in backing vocals with big harmonies, dreamy guitar, and stark marching drum breaks. “Wellish Home,” a quiet folk stunner that sounds similar to Joan Shelley, doesn’t need to be loud to make an impact. The opening line “When my well dries up/ How will I fill my cup?” will put a lump in your throat.
The apex is “What Do I Know” where Curtin charges ahead, tired of proving herself. “Now I’m fielding your questions and compliments laced with surprise/ How’d I learn to do what I’m doing?/ Would you ask those other guys?”
“Song for Thanksgiving” is both the most cliché and challenging track on the record. It’s an earnest Thanksgiving hymn about appreciating what you have and teaching children the value of love over all else. At first, it seems to stall the momentum Or So It Seemed has when it’s sad and angry, but in the broader context of a full portrait of Curtin, it uses that momentum to reveal some additional assumptions” Women can be sad, angry, anxious, and appreciative all at once. A woman can sing “I have so much to be thankful for” and “When, oh, when we call a spade by name?” on the same album without having to be one or the other at every moment.
Or So It Seemed ends with a fantasy: Curtin, who’s been making records for 10 years and recently founded Local Woman Records, seems ready to take what’s hers. “Dine on the stars and moon/ Ate ’em up with a spoon,” she sings.
Sara Curtin performs tonight at Black Cat at 7:30 with The North Country and PMNA. $15.