In a Still Small Voice: Cortese, Bragg, Bombara, Plett, and Bush

A cheesy TV show tells us that America's got talent. If only forging a music career were as easy as a few moments of instant fame under the camera's glare. The music industry can be especially brutal for women, only a handful of whom break through past the age of 30. (Debbie Harry, Rachel Platten, and Lori McKenna spring to mind.) Let's be blunt: there's an oversupply of female vocalists with "pretty," but small voices. How does one break away from the pack before the fullness of one's vocal patina oxidizes? Here's a sampling of female singers handling that question well.

Laura Cortese is another superb talent from Boston's Berklee School of Music. She's also something of a vet by now—a cofounder of the Hub's Celtic Music Festival, has performed with mighty lineups (including Band of Horses and Uncle Earl), and has just released California Calling, her seventh album. She fronts a very cool band called The Dance Cards: Jenna Moynihan (fiddle, banjo), Valerie Thompson (cello), Natalie Bohrn (bass), and Sam Kassirer (keys). Collectively they evoke the harmonies of The Wailin' Jennys, but with more adventuresome instrumentation. Cortese's leads are noted less for their clarity or virtuosity than for their emotional power. The bluegrassy "Low Hum"—bronzed by Moynihan's banjo—is both ethereal and drone drenched; those such as "Skipping Stones" and "If You Can Hear Me" are reverberant in the way voices sound in a sparsely furnished room. The title track has echoes of Enya, though the overall piece is hipper and Thompson's cello infuses nervous energy. Other standouts include the rhythmic "Stockholm," the soulful "Pace Myself," and "Rhodedendron [sic]," with vocals appropriate for a gospel choir. ★★★★

Mary Bragg also shines by fronting a band, in her case a gritty one: Rich Hinson (electric/pedal steel guitar), Jimmy Sullivan (bass), Bryan Owings (drums), and various guests with whom she co-wrote the ten songs on Lucky Strike. Before landing in Nashville, Bragg left Georgia to spend some time working in New York City soup kitchens where, as the expression goes, she saw some things. Many of the characters on this album are on the wrong side of life's margins: a young woman who fled her emotionally abusive preacher father ("Bayou Lullaby,"), vagabonds ("Drifters Hymn,") those who can't move on "(Isn't It Over Yet,"), and—a personal favorite, the robust "Wreck and Ruin," a whole town full of people who've been kicked in the teeth: Left—nobody gets left in this town/Everybody here has already done all their letting down. It was co-written with Becky Warren (as were three other songs) and it's not a song for terminal optimists: We've given up giving a damn about broken hearts. The title track is like that too; in Bragg's words, it's a "sarcastic poke at hopefulness." She sings … looking for a lucky strike/To pull me out of the back of the line. Don't hold your breath! Another favorite is "Wildfire," which she penned with the talented Liz Longley. It's about dangerous attraction: Wildfire, there's nothing like a wildfire/Feeling that you can't put out/Loving that you can't turn down…. Bragg's songs are mostly in the country rock/country folk side of the musical ledger, but don't let her dulcet tones fool you; she's tough as nails.****

Speaking of grit, St. Louis-based Beth Bombara isn't afraid to sing about the depths because she's plumbed them. Her latest, Map & No Direction is the product of two years of battling with depression. "Sweet Time," which honors her husband's role in helping her through, is evocative of retro Sam Cooke, but with a softer cheek-to-cheek slow dance feel. Don't get used to this—most of Bombara's material has a harder edge. The title track is edgy and urgent and arranged rootless roots style, by which I mean it opens folky and melodic but slides into bold and crunchy. Apparently part of Bombara's recovery involves kicking out the jams. "When I Woke Up" and "Made For Now" are no-frills rock with drums pounding and guitar licks slicing the seams. "I Tried (Too Late)" also rocks and parts recall Jackson Browne. Every song on this recording is a winner but—as much as Dylan devotees will spew venom—her cover of "Blind Willie McTell" surpasses the original. Bombara draws comparisons to Aimee Mann, though a St. Louis newspaper called her a "bourbon warmed Neko Case." I can't top that, so let's go with it. ★★★★

Canada's Melissa Plett serves country twang with folk and soul seasoning. Although there are contemporary elements, Ghost Town features time-honored country recipes: broken hearts, strong drink, bad times, revenge, and death. Even the waltz tempo "Stay" begins like a lover's supplication, but it's actually about missing her mother. Plett's titles alert us to look for the dark amidst the light: "Sunshine and Liquor," "Gone," "Handle of Whisky…."  (I've got a handle of good whisky/Don't got a handle on my heart.) The old valentine is also an issue on "Sideways," in which she walks away from temptation, but isn't sure if that's wise or regrettable. "Mexico" warns of the perils of seeking miracles, and the piercing sting of "Trigger" has a chilling resolution. Plett's voice is, at turns, vulnerable, husky, and emotive—often with a catch that stops just short of a yodel. Occasionally, she pushes things too close to the top of her range, but this project has appealing throwback vibe that redeems—even if Plett is skeptical of that sort of thing. ★★★

A quick word on an older release that recently came to my attention. Molly Bush hails from Texas and lives in Nashville, but her 2016 From a Year Ago, Forget About It is suggestive of what someone with folk sensibilities can do with musicians who know when to lay back and when to lay it on. Bush has a lovely, clear voice and I was impressed by how she switched from the simple and sweet ("Letter Song"), to shimmery ("Sailboats"), to let-it-rip ("Spirit"). Maybe next release I'll catch her in the same calendar year!

Rob Weir   

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