Amy Ray has been through a lot of changes over the past couple of years. Her musical partnership with Emily Saliers, the Indigo Girls, finished out their contract with Epic Records, and then signed with Hollywood Records. The album they released, Despite Our Differences, was well-received by their dedicated fan base and critics alike, but despite the apparent success, the band and label parted ways earlier this year.
In the midst of all this, Ray wrote and recorded her third solo studio album, Didn’t It Feel Kinder. Unlike the previous two albums, this is not a collection of strident rock-with-punk-attitude songs mixed in with poppier dance-rock anthems. Rather, this album signals a shift to a more introspective Ray, focusing on mellower arrangements with only a few hints of her earlier style (such as the lead single, “Blame is a Killer”).
Fans will likely be surprised upon first listen — I know I was — but there were signs of this new Amy Ray on Despite Our Differences (“Three County Highway” and “Dirt & Dead Ends” come to mind). Keep on listening, because eventually this new sound will become as familiar as the old one.
The two opening tracks are slow, melancholy anti-folk tunes that make use of repetitive poetry to convey meaning and story. Perhaps this is why the third track, “Bus Bus,” stands out for me. The song makes use of rhythmic repetition as well, but with a bit more funk and soul in the arrangements. I was reminded, a little, of Rilo Kiley’s “Moneymaker.”
“Cold Shoulder” is an acoustic nod to the poppy party tracks from Prom (“Driver Education,” “Blender”). Ray is one of few songwriters I am familiar with who can deftly combine a political protest song with a love song and come out with something so infectious that you can’t help but nod along with the beat. She uses the same trick on “Who Sold the Gun,” minus the love song bit — just straight up danceable anti-war political protest this time.
Politics have been the source of Ray’s musical muse throughout her career, so it’s no surprise to find political statements scattered throughout this album. If liberal politics offends you to the extent that you can’t stand to hear it, you may not want to listen to Amy Ray’s music. Her causes are numerous, from the preservation of Native American lands to supporting low-power FM and community radio (“SLC Radio”), and she does not hesitate to speak her mind in verse. However, for the most part, her approach isn’t polemic. This is Ray — raw and real.
Even though Ray worked with some of the same musicians on Didn’t It Feel Kinder as she did for Stag and Prom, this album has a completely different feel to it. The message is the same, but the medium has shifted. Fans expecting a punk rock album may be disappointed, but I think that Didn’t It Feel Kinder will find its audience among listeners who enjoy the message as much as the medium.