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Music Review: Rachael Sage – Haunted by You

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Rachael Sage is not your run of the mill June/moon singer/ songwriter. You hear a line like “today is the first day of the rest of my. . .” and, if you’re expecting the cliché, forget it, not going to happen. Sage is a poet. The ordinary image is not where she’s going. For her ideas and emotions, she needs “bittersweet Swarovski,” “a big old purple sequin. . . tearing up” her art, “one speck of mica shining on the ground.” In a lover’s touch she hears the “Song of Solomon. She searches for meaning in a “dead sea of ill-fated dreaming.” Without love you’re “one mitten in Grand Central’s lost and found.”

Luckily, Sage’s latest album Haunted by You comes complete with a full set of lyrics for the 12 original songs. You’ll want them. Listening won’t be enough; you’ll want them in front of you to ponder while you listen and think about long after. Not that there’s anything wrong with the music: she has created a passionate song cycle that plumbs the emotional depths of love found and love lost. “I fell recklessly in and out of love multiple times while writing this record,” she explains on her website. “I broke a couple hearts…and I also had my heart broken pretty badly.” Broken hearts have long been the stuff of pop music; Sage’s gift, and she has one, is to take “what oft was thought,” as one poet past has put it, “but ne’er so well expressed.”

Whether she’s indulging in the kind of arcane allusions and metaphors reminiscent of the Metaphysical Poets—a lover’s touch is a “Kabbalistic mystery,” she can’t be “the only Catherine wheel,” or looking at love with a grittier eye—”I’m not just a girl you held one night in an Austin motel,” there is an emotional honesty in her music that comes through clearly in her vocals. She is able to sell lyrics that might come across to some as esoteric or academic as expressions of sincere feelings. She can be vulnerable; she can be strong. She has her moments, at times hopeful, at times bleak, but always sung with truthful sensitivity. Always open about her own sexuality, some of the songs state it explicitly “Confession,” “Abby Would You Wait;” most are generic expressions applicable to both sexes.

The album opens and closes with the paradoxically titled “Invisible Light,” which highlights the desire for someone who really understands her. She calls it her favorite song on the album and points out how different the arrangements are. Dar Williams, Seth Glier, and Joshua Leonard contribute background vocals on the reprise track. She says that “Abby Would You Wait” is about a long conversation shared one night after a show. Like “Invisible Light,” it seems to be looking for that special understanding that binds two people. The cleverly titled “Soulstice” captures a moment of joy in passion, and the resignation that comes with the understanding that it is fleeting: “Can’t we just agree that I love you and call it a night.” She is joined on the track by Kelly Halloran on violin, Jack Petruzelli on guitar, and David Immergluck on mandolin.

Her own band The Sequins consists of Quinn (drums and percussion), Russ Johnson (trumpet and flugelhorn), and Dave Eggar (cello). Sage plays piano, wurlitzer, rhodes, harmonium, percussion and acoustic guitar.

“Haunted by You,” the title song is one of a string of bleak laments on unrequited love, including “California,” “The Sequin Song” (a metaphoric tour de force), and the truly black “Performance Art.” In “Confession,” on the other hand, she takes the blame for love’s failure on herself: “I took you for granted every day of my life.” Contrast these with the artist’s more hopeful expressions: “Everything,” for example, where “faith has a way of giving you what you need,” and “Hey Nah,” where she has “elected to be happy all” her days. “Birthday,” while keeping to the cycle’s central themes manages to throw in a little shout out the singer’s Jewish roots, an indulgence she seems to relish both on the stage and on her website.

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About Jack Goodstein