It’s nice to have an opportunity to review a new CD and a live performance at the same time. It can pose some difficulties too.
Milwaukee-based Michelle Anthony’s debut CD presents her as an alt-country chanteuse in the vein of Lucinda Williams. A fine bass player and pianist, Anthony, who is model-thin, has a powerful, rich voice reminiscent of Mama Cass or Ellen McIlwaine. But her sensibility, in spite of the CD’s relatively lush arrangements, has more in common with the starkness of Lucinda Williams or Liz Phair.
Though she’s a far better singer than either one, Anthony is not in their league as a songwriter (not yet, anyway). She may have the potential, though.
The CD opens, strangely, with a slow number called “Mourning Song,” which builds to a big climax but doesn’t embody the thoroughbred energy Anthony draws on in her more up-tempo songs. “Don’t Deny” and “Family Tree” are where the Liz Phair vibe comes on most strongly, and the latter is quite catchy and one of my favorites. “All This Time,” on the other hand, while not a bad song, sounds like a Christine McVie effort that didn’t make the grade for a Fleetwood Mac album.
If there’s a breakout song on this CD, it’s the frenetic, Dylan-esque “Ellouise” which describes a writer (read: singer-songwriter) who “steals souls for her pen” and “sings her feminine wiles” yet can’t create anything as vivid as real life, as the rousing chorus declares: “Life is better fiction so it wins.” This is the song that sticks with me most after listening several times to the CD. I would have put it first on the album, or at least in the first three. Why it’s seventh is beyond me.
“Bubble Clock” is another high-powered winner, putting a glam-rock sheen on chilling lyrics about kidnapped children:
So we hold our hands
In the dead of day
There’s two hands cuffed
Two hands pray…
No no, nobody’s allowed to cry
He screams, “nobody’s allowed to cry!”
Anthony’s lyrics are interesting and literate throughout, and sometimes poetic, as in “Today,” the CD’s best ballad:
So change your face, cut your nails, smooth out all your fraying ends
Start your car and shade your eyes, swallow all your little pills
Hold your breath as you drive past the old life that has died
The only real downer is the ballad “Closer” which doesn’t go anywhere and does nothing for me – when she sang it live, my wife and I found ourselves playing with the straws in our drinks and wondering when the song would be over. (Someone likes it, though – it’s being used in a movie.)
Unfortunately the CD doesn’t quite do justice to Anthony’s voice, and I would never have known that if I hadn’t seen her live. That’s not to say it doesn’t show she’s a good singer: in fact, when I first listened to the disc I thought, Thank goodness, a female singer-songwriter who isn’t afraid to actually sing!
But she’s stronger live, and I don’t think it’s the fault of the recording per se, since the voice is clear and up front in the mix. Maybe Anthony and her team were a little too distracted by the authentic sounds of their guitars and keyboards, which do sound great. Or maybe she was trying a little too hard to be “controlled” in the studio (“Ellouise” excepted). It’s hard to say. In any case, the voice is more impressive live.
Another issue is that the country vibe was totally absent in the live performance. In itself, that’s neither a bad nor a good thing. But the CD might give industry people the wrong idea.
Still, a good song is a good song. Anthony has some, and if she keeps at it she can probably write many more. And her voice alone, especially if she tours enough (she has upcoming dates in Austin and in the Midwest), ought to get her noticed.
All in all this is a very promising debut.