Thursday, October 5, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1057: Indigo Girls

My weekend is starting early. As in…now! Let’s kick it off with a music review after which I’ll go watch that football game I’m taping.

Disc 1057 is…Rites of Passage
Artist: Indigo Girls

Year of Release: 1992

What’s up with the Cover? This cover answers the question “What’s the least amount of fun you can have with Microsoft Paint?”

How I Came To Know It: Back in 1992 I was pretty big into the Indigo Girls and I bought this album new when it came out. I’ve had it ever since.

How It Stacks Up:  I have six Indigo Girls albums. Of those six “Rites of Passage” is way up there, but can’t quite dislodge their self-titled album so I must reluctantly put it second, but only by a hair. Since is the last of my Indigo Girls’ albums to review, here is a recap:

  1. Self-Titled: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 412)
  2. Rites of Passage: 5 stars (reviewed right here)
  3. Strange Fire: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 50)
  4. Nomads, Indians, Saints: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 691)
  5. Shaming of the Sun: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 489)
  6. Swamp Ophelia: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 647)
Ratings: 5 stars

“Rites of Passage” is the Indigo Girls’ fourth album, and it is the perfect mix of what has come before. It follows the smoother sound from “Nomads, Indians, Saints” and blends it with the stripped-down emotion of their first two albums. The combination is masterful, and makes for one of the finest folk-rock albums I’ve ever heard.

As always, the contrast between the punk-tinged grit of Amy Ray’s voice and Emily Saliers sweet and light vocals is the engine that makes this band work. Ray and Saliers come in and out of harmony, echo one another in what is almost an ‘in the round’ style and simultaneously paint the background and the lead vocals, creating layers of soundscapes that thrill the ear. They have a natural timing, and an ease around one another that makes complex well-planned arrangements seem organic and improvisational.

The album begins with the hard hitting, beat driven “Three Hits” led by Amy Ray, and then immediately switches to Saliers singing sweetly on “Galileo”. Like Cuddy and Keelor from Blue Rodeo, the pair know how to use the contrast of their songs in a way that makes you appreciate both styles more.

“Rites of Passage” adds additional instrumentation to the vocals along with a smoother production, but unlike “Nomads, Indians, Saints” they don’t lose any of the emotional impact in the process. A big part of this is their ability to employ syncopation and beat to add oomph to the songwriting.

Not that these songs need the help. This album has some of their finest writing, as they explore everything from social justice to history to love. They even poke gentle fun at fear of flying at one point on “Airplane”. All the songs have a tenderness that lets you into Amy and Emily’s innermost soul making you feel vulnerable in the process.

There is no better example than “Ghost,” a painful exploration of love lost but still felt, like a limb that’s been cut off but still aches and itches. Lyrically, this song has few equals as it mixes the natural imagery of modern America:

“And the Mississippi’s mighty
But it starts in Minnesota
At a place where you can walk across
With five steps down.
And I guess that’s how you started
Like a pinprick to my heart
But at this point you rush right through me
And I start to drown.”

With literary allusions to mythological Greece:

“Now I see your face before me
I would launch a thousand ships
To bring your heart back to my island
As the sand beneath me slips
As I burn up in your presence
And I know now how it feels
To be weakened like Achilles
With you always at my heels.”

All in the service of making your heart ache for lovers gone. Later, the Indigo Girls do a cover of Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” and show they can infuse the raw emotion of their singing into other people’s words with equally devastating effect. I heard this cover of “Romeo and Juliet” first and it felt so natural, I had no idea it was a Dire Straits’ cover until years later (note to self: read the liner notes).

The album puts the Girls’ hearts on their sleeves throughout. “Virginia Woolf” is an homage to one of their literary heroes, and “Nashville” is a bitter admission of how Nashville never embraced them. I got the feeling listening to it that the rejection still hurt, but like any bad ending to a relationship, the Indigo Girls get their licks in with lines like “Nashville, you forgot the human race/You see with half a mind what colors hide the face.”

Even in its quietest moments, “Rites of Passage” speaks to my soul. “Let it Be Me” is both a prayer and a promise to embrace peace and forgiveness, and “Cedar Tree” celebrates the dead with a light and reverent touch that lifts your mood, even as it sings about the people we’ve lost.

This album was very important to me in 1992, and deserves a lot of credit for helping steer me back to the light. Today it still resonates, filling my spirit with both peace and mindfulness. After 25 years – many of which I had very few albums to choose from – these songs still resonate as much as they did the first day I heard them. For this reason, this album gets five stars and my enduring love and respect.

Best tracks: All tracks

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