Umbrellas In Mint, the sixth album from versatile songstress Lisa Kirchner, has a playlist of one dozen original songs that highlights her art as a songwriter. There are singer-songwriters aplenty, good ones and some not so good. Lisa Kirchner isn’t good. Lisa Kirchner is great. The woman is a poet. Her lyrics demand attention, and the fact that she sets them in a variety of elegant melodies puts her in the same class with the best of the singer/poets. And besides that, she can sing. Her voice has the kind of classic purity that does full justice to her remarkable lyrics.
Let’s talk about those lyrics. When you get a couple of lines like “It’s only a dish of a bird in a stew/A fish of a feather that’s salty and blue,” you know you’re not dealing with an ordinary songwriter. This is a unique voice. Her imagery can be surrealistic. “Summer” is “pleading on her knees.” Her verse can be witty: “the city’s a circle Columbus could eat.” There are “poems that napkins are written on.” She hears “rhymes in quarters and dimes” and tells “stories with peach pits and prunes.” She plays with ironic paradox. A potential love flees “from the rock leaving keys but no lock.” Potential lovers dine “on prizes, toys, and stars.” She is not afraid to pepper her songs with literary allusions: Dylan Thomas’ Adventures in the Skin Trade, the Sad Café, Byron, Montague and Capulet, Monte Cristo. She is willing to build a whole song on some phrases from T. S. Eliot. Add references to the Pantheon, Vichy, and Eskatral, and it is clear she doesn’t find it necessary to write down to her audience.
Kirchner takes time in the liner notes to say something about the genesis of each of the songs. The album opens with “Salty and Blue (I Don’t Believe in Romance),” which she calls an “ironic lament spiked with limerick.” It couches that irony and a dose of that surreal imagery in some contrasting lilting old-style swing and features some nice solo work from pianist Xavier Davis, guitarist Ron Jackson, and saxophonist Sherman Irby. “A Billion Stars Ago (In the Shadow of Crow)” opens with an intro from drummer Willie Jones III and moves around rhythmically—a bit of Latin, a bit of blues. “What About You?” catalogues the beauties of the city. Bill Schimmels’ accordion gives the song a European touch.
She points out that “The Hudson Bay Inn” was inspired by the songs of Brecht and Weill. It has the feel of a lilting story ballad with a melody that is infectious. The title song is an up-tempo jazzy piece with some featured solo work by the rest of the band. The cryptic title refers to the paper umbrellas in cocktails. “Let Us Go Then” plays with the regret for a wasted life in Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The music echoes the regret of the lyric. “Under the Paris Moon (Manhattan Under the Paris Moon)” has a sound reminiscent of the French chanteuse, while “At the Closing of the Fair” could be pop rock hit, featuring some old-time solos from Irby and the rest of the band.
In “Tim,” a song about a “brilliant actor and dancer who taught a transcendent dance class,” Kirchner says the hour with him was “the measure of heaven.” “The measure of heaven” is not a bad description of the hour you spend with Umbrellas in Mint.