What has got into Memphis these days since double-bassist Amy LaVere moved there from Nashville? – nothing less than a wake-up call for Americana, which was sounding much too tame for its own good. That wake-up call is named Stranger Me, and it’s Amy’s third solo album. Bloody brilliant her record is too, even calling for, no demanding, a re-evaluation of everything else that’s been released so far in 2011.
This woman is a huge songwriting talent, with a collection of tunes that won’t leave you alone once you’ve heard them: ethereal, haunting, and kick-you-in-the-gut all at the same time, especially if you happen to be the one who wronged her. Her sweet voice seems small at first, her songs a little introspective; but those illusions are cast aside quickly when you find yourself simultaneously feverish with the song playing now and the delicious anticipation of not knowing what unexpected pleasures lie ahead with the next one. And that pleasure is undiminished by repeated listening.
In addition to fronting the Detroit punk band Last Minute as a teenager, Amy has also gained notice for her considerable acting ability: you may recall her cameo as Rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson in Walk The Line and and you may have spotted her in a featured role in Craig Brewer’s Black Snake Moan. Her parents were dedicated country fans, though, and when her family ended up in Nashville after more than a dozen moves around the country, Amy began recording. What started years ago as a mix of punk, Gypsy jazz and country has further evolved in this album, filled as it is with stunning guitar work, horns, toy instruments, and unusually (for these days when distortion reigns) clear vocals backed by fuzz-inflected brooding solos, some startling drumming, and a compositional complexity that is truly ear-opening.
Love gone wrong was never expressed as well as it is in the opener “Damn Love Song”, and while the album generally is about love and loss (the Western world’s favorite musical topics), Amy’s take on relationships is intimate, direct and unforgettable. We predict that in short order you will revere Amy LaVere.
Accompanied by some of the strongest ensemble playing in quite some time, produced by Craig Silvey who was responsible in large part for making Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs one of the best albums in recent years, Amy LaVere has improved her previous great recordings with the arrival of this new album: it reminds me strongly of the impact of Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. However, Lucinda continued on a well-travelled highway, whereas Amy is setting a new course entirely by obliterating traditional song structure and daring to say things in her songs that Lucinda only hinted at, in ways undreamed of to date in the Americana genre.
Standout tracks: too many to list, but do not miss “You Can’t Keep Me” and the title track “Stranger Me”.
Comparisons to other artists are almost futile when it comes to Amy LaVere, but here’s one: imagine the directness of Josh T. Pearson, the dreaminess of Explosions In the Sky, and the compositional talents of Van Dyke Parks, all appearing in one slight super-talented feminine frame.
Stranger Me features Amy on upright bass and vocals, Rick Steff on keyboards, David Cousar on guitars, and Paul Taylor on drums. Other contributors included Jonathan Kirkscey and Bobby Furgo (strings), Jim Spake (saxophone), John Stubblefield (bass), and Nahshon Benford (trumpet).
While most of the album was recorded in Memphis, additional recordings were made in New Orleans at Preservation Hall with horn arrangements by noted Preservation Hall Band member and Bingo Show leader, Clint Maedgen.
If you’ve lost faith in new music, or if you believe great songs just aren’t being written any more, check out Stranger Me. It may be the best breakup record ever.
Watch: “Red Banks”
Watch (from 2009) “Killing Him”