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a bitter pill
on June 9, 2004
This is one tough album to review. The editor on All Music Guide must be crazy saying this album is basically sweet. Crazy. The biographical background information from Amazon is a bit more helpful to put this cd into context.
It's appropriately named--BITTERTOWN. Bitter bitter bitter. Can things really be this hopeless in that little town world of Lori's...with almost no light, with almost no real positive emotions? She ends the acknowledgements with "I am blessed." That's hard to believe. Not a sign of that feeling in the lyrics. Her voice remains very edgy and sharp and at times as exhausting as ever. The combination of that wearying voice and the negativity of the lyrics and the hopelessness of the world portrayed reach their nadir in "Mr. Sweetheart" and "Cowardly Lion." Having to listen to these two songs very often would cause one to jump off that "ledge" Lori talks about. This all is not to say that's she not a cogent social observer and critic. She certainly is. But, this becomes very tiring for a whole album. Perhaps Lori works out her demons and her negative thoughts in her songs. One must hope so. If not, life must be pretty difficult at home for her and her kids.
On the positive side, her instrumentation and players are truly great. Several times I felt like listening to the music and not the singing. Wonderful composing and playing for the mandolin, keyboards, guitars and even the rhythm programming. Terrific use of harmony singers, especially Buddy Miller, Mark Erelli and Chris Trapper. And Lori sounds best in a number of songs with complex combinations of instruments. The best song to my ears is "Pour." "Bible Song," "One Man," "If You Ask," and "Monday Afternoon" are also pretty wonderful. Her last cd, "Kitchen Tapes," makes for an interesting contrast. Although her voice is again almost unremittingly sharp and harsh on that homegrown production, somehow some of the songs felt just a bit more positive. Life just can't be this dark and with so little to redeem it. On the other hand, one must admire Lori for sticking to her vision. That vision, however, feels a bit like a painful vaccine injection--done for my own good. One other question: do any of the female protagonists stuck home with kids and a not so involved husband feel some bit of personal responsibility for their own plight?
And I do wish for a bit more of the sweetness from her first two records. But, perhaps I'm just being too superficial and/or wanting to don my rose-colored glasses. Or, perhaps I've been spoiled this month by the magnificent new recordings from Patty Griffin and Gretchen Peters.
One other thought or two: if you are new to Lori, try one of her first two records. Both PAPER WINGS & HALO and PIECES OF ME have much to recommend them. And consider Judith Edelman's very fine, DRAMA QUEEN. She covers much the same territory of small town life as Lori does in BITTERTOWN but with much more humor and more variety of darkness and light.