There are some images that are nearly impossible to shake, and one that's been stuck in my head since back in the dark days of the 1970s is that of the typical female country singer of that time. Hair piled on top of their heads, held in place with enough hair spray to create its own personal hole in the ozone layer, and wearing long sweeping dresses of either lime green or bright pink with a high neck. They'd sing with a mournful voice that was sure to crack when they reached the part about the guy who left her at the alter for his pickup truck.
In spite of the efforts of people like Emmylou Harris, Alison Krouse, Gillian Welsh, and others those visions of polyester and bee hives are still the first thing that comes to mind for me when someone mentions country singer and woman in the same breath. If I'm really honest, I have to admit that the number of people who I actually saw fitting that description were probably only a few, but such was my general feeling of animosity for country music in those days it became forever welded to my imagination.
Then along comes someone like Carrie Rodriguez, who has just released her second CD, She Ain't Me on Manhattan Records. She not only looks the complete opposite of those Bride of Frankenstein clones of my memory, but sings songs that don't make mention of pick-up trucks or hard drinking men and you want me to believe that she's a country singer. Sorry it just doesn't compute. Sure she was born in Austin Texas and plays fiddle and electric mandolin, which are definitely prerequisites for being a country singer, but have you listened to the lyrics of her songs or heard the quality of her voice?
Okay I know that's really unfair to a lot of people, but I've always had a love/hate thing with country music. Some of my favourite performers are considered country music singers, but the genre itself, what with the whole God and America thing and the stink of hypocrisy that holier than thou closet drinkers give off, has always repelled me. So when I hear a recording as thoughtful and interesting as She Ain't Me, I automatically don't want it to be lumped in with the music of the anti-Hank, Garth Brooks, and his ilk. I just can't see Carrie Rodriguez stooping to writing a sentimental song about God, country, the flag, and the need to kill people who look different.
Okay now that we've established who she ain't, who is Carrie Rodriguez? Going by this release, that's thankfully not an easy question to answer. You can start by saying she's a songwriter, as she had a hand in writing ten of the eleven tracks on the new disc, and of course she's a singer as well as being a multi instrumentalist. However, there are plenty of people out there who can say the same thing, so that's nothing really to go by. What is something to go by is the fact that she's not easy to pin down musically and doesn't fit nicely into anybody's square pegs of where she should belong, including mine.
Lyrically her songs range from those that deal with the physical world around her, the metaphysical, to the world of emotions and thoughts that normally stay stuffed inside your head. "Infinite Night", which opens the disc, tries to impart a sense of the perspective that's required to deal with the chaos of life in modern times: "Well the sun is just a star/It reminds us where we are/Just a little part of the infinite night". Instead of telling us what or who we should believe in like far too many would do, Rodriguez just gently reminds us that no matter how crazy it might get down here on earth, there's more to existence than what we see in front of our eyes.
From the outer reaches, she switches to the internal with "Rag Doll" in which she dissects a relationship without any of the usual accusatory bullshit that accompanies this type of song. Sure he might make it "hard to love you" but than again "I make it hard to love me/When every time you do I lose my head". Unlike so many other singers these days, male or female, Rodriguez has the good sense to point out that relationships are two way streets and that both parties are more often than not equally involved in what goes on.
My favourite song on the album is the hauntingly beautiful "Absence". In it she shows a beautiful understanding of imagery and describes the empty place in your heart when someone you love has vanished for, whatever reason, in a way that anybody can understand. "Snow, sleet, wind, and rain/Breath on a windowpane/Absence tells the hardest truth". Austere and bleak, just like how your feel when you're dealing with the grief of loss, the lyrics of this song speak to their subject matter both in their literal meaning and the imagery they generate. It's rare these days for a songwriter to achieve the kind of poetry with song lyrics the way Rodriguez manages with this track.
Rodriguez's voice is not only expressive, but it has character as well. Not only does her singing reflect the emotions of what she's singing about, but she sounds like a human being as her voice catches on a tear, rises in anger, or sinks back in resignation. She also exhibits wonderful control, so unlike some singers who believe you only have the option of either shouting or whispering, she can modulate her breathing and find the real places in between extremes where so much of life actually does happen.
Musically, She Ain't Me follows the example Ms. Rodriguez sets by knowing when to crescendo and when to pull back and leave her voice front and centre. It's hard to say what the music is because it's crafted to work with each individual song so well. So on the opening track there's a hardness to it that befits the urgency of the lyrics while at the other end of the spectrum the introspective "Let Me In", near the end of the album, is close to minimalist as notes and beats are carefully picked out by Carrie and her fellow musicians.
Speaking of musicians, it's easy to forget while you're listening to her sing, that it's Ms. Rodriguez playing the violin on this recording. Yes, that is her playing those really interesting sounding fiddle lines on various songs that all of a sudden pop out from the background. You can hear her classical training in her playing, as there's a control to it that is often missing from people who've only ever played fiddle. To my mind it makes her playing stronger and more passionate then is normal for violin in popular music.
Like other strong and independent female vocalists before her Carrie Rodriguez is not going to be easy for people to pin down and label. Unlike most of what flutters around the pop charts these days she sings about real life with the voice of a human being. I don't think I've been as impressed upon hearing a female vocalist for the first time since I first heard Iris DeMent. If there were justice in the world She Ain't Me would have been the disc to scream to the top of the Billboard charts when it was released, not the latest piece of pabulum from the drama queen.