Women with Amazing Voices

To repeat an old rant, too many Nashville-based female singers are like Lego pieces: unsnap one and pop another into place. As a rule they are young, small-voiced, whispery-toned sopranos—pretty to hear, but with all the distinctiveness of a block of clapboard houses painted white. Here's a June 2018 edition of Women with Amazing Voices—the ones that will make you want to stuff those Lego pieces back in the box and hide them in the closet.

Ellen Starski, The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants

Ellen Starski has a unique voice you'll either love or find odd. Put me firmly in the first camp. Its nasal, but expressive; dramatic, but controlled. The latter quality is one I really admire. "Daughter of the Sea" is a perfect example. This song has theatrical qualities with its bouncy, edgy strings, but it's deliberately paced and the tension comes from small shifts in Starski's voice, not flashy outbursts. It's also typical in that most of the songs are about loss, family, and coming to grips with the ways of adult life. "Ode to Nanny and Cookie" is about her grandmothers; the tone is somber and wrapped in moody repeated guitar pulses. "Miss You Mary" is homage to her mother and she wrenches emotion from lines such as I was looking for a place to bury the past with you. A different kind of yearning emerges in "Missing You," Glimpses of you still surface on my skin/I shower and the world comes crashing in…. Starski lists influences such as Leonard Cohen, Aimee Mann, and Sarah McLachlan, but there's also some old-time country in it that, to me, evoked Kitty Wells. Check out songs such as "Honey, I'm Not Him." When she sings I told you once don't make me tell you again/You better stay away from my man it's way more ominous than you'd expect. It also has Appalachian seasonings that reflect the northwest Pennsylvania coal country from which she hails. "Taken By the Breeze" also has an old-time flair, though its catchiness is enhanced with just a touch of mariachi brass that takes us south of the mountains. Ms. Starski also has a footlights-quality to parts of her repertoire. "Chasin' the Sun" feels like a string band vaudeville song, and she also engages in moody spoken word forays such as "Slip of Paper" and the title track, one that is completely silent for thirty seconds before Starski recites a rhythmic poem to flute and snare drum accompaniment. I always appreciate musicians who take chances and Starski's recording ranks high among my 2018 favorites.  ★★★★★

Gretchen Peters, Sad Songs Make Me Happy

Perhaps the name Gretchen Peters gives you pause, but I’ll bet you know her music. She has a dozen records of her own, including the newly released Dancing with the Beast, but she is best known as a songwriter; she even has a niche in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Her “Independence Day”—a hit for Martina McBride—ranks # 50 of the Top 100 greatest country songs of all time, but you’ve not heard it the way it should be sung until you’ve heard Peters perform it. Luckily you can; NoiseTrade has released it on a compilation of Peters’ back catalogue material. Take the collection title seriously; Peters has an affinity for tough songs. “Independence Day,” for example, is based on the infamous 1977 Francine Hughes case, and involves an eight-year-old girl who is at the fair the day her mother sets fire to the home of her abusive husband while he and she are in it.* A tragedy? Not from Peters’ perspective!  Disappearing Act” (from her new album) is about mortality, and "Blackbird" is another murder ballad.  “On a Bus to St. Cloud,” a hit for Trisha Yearwood, is a sad song of missing a lost love; and “When All You Got is a Hammer” is about an Iraq War vet who comes home with PTSD and the deck stacked against him. When he chillingly strikes back Peters sings, When all you got is a hammer/Everything looks like a nail. There are several tender moments on this collection, including the lovely “The Way You Move Me” and her Peters' manifesto of things of value in “The Answer.” Mostly, though, this is an album about when life isn’t exactly as imagines, like the harried woman in “Five Minutes,” or the woman aching for “The Matador,” but fearing his rage and not sure who I was cheering for… I loved the fighter and the bull. A final word: Although Ms. Peters’ music is often labeled country, that's an inaccurate descriptor. Her voice is like a huskier version of Emmylou Harris’ and like Harris, the music transgresses folk, pop, country, and Americana borders. Quite a lot, in fact, is piano-based—more like a rawhide tough Sara Bareilles than a CMT cutout. ★★★★★ 

*For those needing further proof Sean Hannity is an idiot, he has used "Independence Day" as a theme for his radio show under the mistaken impression it's a patriotic song!

Angela Josephine, Daylight

This album has been dubbed a combination "folk-opera and personal exploration" and that's an excellent description. It's deeply spiritual in a dark and honest way—musings filled with doubt, yearning, and surrender to the reality there are mysteries we cannot answer. In her stunning eight-minute finale "Face to the Wind," Angela Josephine asks do you know the way of darkness? Her revelation isn't what you expect, nor is her insistence: I'm taking the cross in this way/there's no other way… In it we also hear some of the instruments she has mastered: piano, guitar, mandolin, dulcimers….  Ms. Josephine's voice is soulful, emotive, and adaptable. She's Grace Slick-like in the way she works the band and trippy grooves of "Got to Believe," which is another song that doesn't play out to usual scripts. She takes to task a man with no one to hold/just a prayer/and a Bible/and what you've been told. And what do we do with the refrain of the ambience-dripped, feedback-enhanced, echoic "River Rising" with its refrain: O sister glory be/Glory be our mother/O sister glory be/The father, son, the lover. The title track is the album's most cheerful, one that unfolds to scampering of mando notes, but Josephine mostly walks on the mysterious and dark side. "Red Roses," for example, is a (sort of) love song but one so moody it could be French—or Leonard Cohen! Josephine is a talented singer, musician, poet, and thinker. She recorded this album in a barn in her Michigan Upper Peninsula homeland and those old beams sparked a lot of serious contemplation. ★★★★

Kris Angelis, Photobooth

Florida-born Kris Angelis now resides in Los Angeles, where she's an actress and singer/songwriter. She has just dropped a single titled "Photobooth" and has released a five-song NoiseTrade EP to mark this. Like much of her music over the past 5-plus years, "Photobooth" is upbeat, a giddy romance unfolding behind a photo booth curtain. Angelis has a small voice, but it's sweet and she can kick it up to drop into danceable arrangements. She draws comparisons to Brandi Carlile and Rachel Platten, though I think her voice is cleaner than Platten's. Check out "Heartbreak is Contagious," her warning she doesn't want to be the rebound girl. Much of it is just guitar and voice, but Angelis gives lots of bounce to the song to make it sound bigger than it is. That's the same approach we hear in the piano-shaped "Prove Me Wrong," the joyous "Roll the Dice," and the indie energy of "A Billion Hearts." Perhaps you've seen Angelis on TV; now give her a listen. ★★★★


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