Monday, June 22, 2020

CD Odyssey Disc 1379: Lillie Mae

I’m having a surreal day today, as I deal with life events that I don’t feel ready to share right now. On tough days like this I like to fill any quiet time in my head with either a lot of work or a lot of words; sometimes both.

So if what follows feels kind of like any other review, or makes you wonder just how distracted I am, well, that’s kind of the point. Or as Tennyson once put it in “In Memoriam”:

“But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.”

Other people’s words help too, I guess.

Disc 1379 is…. Forever and Then Some
Artist: Lillie Mae

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover? Another Giant Head Cover. This one has Lillie Mae staring very intently at me and I’m not gonna lie; I like it.

How I Came To Know It: I heard about Lillie Mae through her 2019 album “Other Girls” and this was just me drilling through her back catalogue.

How It Stacks Up: I have two Lillie Mae albums, and if you’re a careful reader you’ll already know what they are. Of the two, “Forever and Then Some” comes in at #2.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

This album had a disadvantage in that it came to me at a time that I was heavily distracted by life. As a result it played to me through a bit of a haze and never really sank in the way it might have if I’d heard it under better circumstances. That said, a record’s gotta stand on its own two feet, regardless of circumstances. Art doesn’t get to choose when it comes your way and in the case of the Odyssey, I rarely get to choose when I seek out any particular album.

“Forever and Then Some” is a solid alt country record that makes me hope that Lillie Mae is around making music for a long time. It has a slow mosey to it that goes so far to even get to the edge of “country” and look out onto the edges of “western” on the horizon. It isn’t the subject matter that does this, but rather an overall sound that evokes worn wooden floorboards and long cinematic John Ford shots looking through farmhouse doors at desolate desert vistas.

Lillie Mae’s vocals are full of grit and hurt. They won’t bowl you over with power or range, but they’ll dig deep nonetheless, scraping away at you down in your bones. She sings about hurt, heartache and hard living and she comes away as authentic every time.

She’s at her best when she’s singing about regret and bad luck. “Wash Me Clean” is a song that speaks of the metaphorical grime that builds up over the years. While the song is mostly mournful, there is a strange hope in there, exemplified by the undulating melody that has a bit of a Rankin Family feel, if the Rankins sang less about rural barn dances and more about the hangover the morning after.

The musicianship on the record is exemplary. Lillie Mae is a member of the Rische family. They toured for many years as a band called Jypsi, and all that playing time translates to a sound that is both organic and precise. Noteworthy is the mandolin playing of sister Scarlett Rische, but Lillie Mae is no slouch on the fiddle either. The two of them do all the songwriting as well, with Lillie Mae writing most of the songs solo, and Scarlett helping out on two or three. The harmonies are what you’d expect from sisters that have played music together all their life: sublime.

To Go Wrong” has a real “shit happens” vibe. It shares a dark view of life with a chorus of “good things were meant to go wrong.” Not always true, but it can feel that way when it happens, and Lillie Mae’s hurtful warble underscores the point.

The record is country, but it comes with a healthy dose of bluegrass sensibilities, with a lively jump on the rhythm and all the players getting a ‘turn’ to show off their talents. It also keeps everybody kept nice and even in the mix. The album was produced by Jack White, who shows his deep respect to these country and bluegrass traditions. White may be a blues-rocker himself, but like Rick Rubin, he has a knack for capturing the sound and essence of the act he’s producing, and then bringing it to full-flower.

The record didn’t always penetrate down deep like I wanted it to, and sometimes the production in striving to be rustic and authentic strayed into “tinny” territory. Sorry, Jack. However, these were minor moments on a record that has such solid songwriting and musicianship that I know it will continue to sink in both deeper and better on each new listen.

Best tracks: Honky Tonks and Taverns, Wash Me Clean, These Daze, Forever and Then Some, To Go Wrong

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