By Al Kaufman
Turbulent times often leads to great art. Such is the case with Amy LaVere. While preparing to make her third album three years ago, her producer and mentor, Jim Dickenson, died of complications from triple bypass surgery. Then her guitarist, Steve Selvidge, left to join The Hold Steady. But what really made things sticky was when she broke up with longtime boyfriend and drummer, Paul Taylor. She missed his studio presence and he ended up agreeing to drum on the album, creating that delicious tension that is evident in other groups with broken relationships, such as Fleetwood Mac and Eurythmics. LaVere also recruited Craig Silvey (who mixed Arcade Fire’s Suburbs) to produce, and multi-weird-instrumentalist Rick Steff (who plays the mellotron, theramin, Buddha box, Vibrachime, and various pianos), left of center guitarist David Cousar, and a slew of horn instrumentalists to create her most richly textured album to date.
Stranger Me is swampy, country, and bluesy. While LaVere still demonstrates her powerful skills on the stand-up bass, what she and Silvey have created is a musical showcase. LaVere has a voice that spits venom as effortlessly as it conveys vulnerability. “Damn Love Song,” which opens the album, showcases her richer, more sonic sound. The song has a sort of psychedelic quality to it, like Jefferson Airplane. The biting lyrics are from a woman whose boyfriend wanted her to write him a love song, which she finally does after they break up. In the smokey “Red Banks,” she happily watches the river swallow up her ex, who had threatened to throw her in earlier. She slyly protects herself by saying, “No, I didn’t push him in/Lord, he’d a killed me if I did.” Even her straight ahead pop songs, such as “You Can’t Keep Me,” have a certain darkness to them. It is a song Jenny Lewis would be proud to call her own. It’s bouncy, tough, and includes a majestic trumpet.
LaVere showcases all her talents on Stranger Me. She plays a ’60s chanteuse on “Tricky Heart,” country girl on the Bobby Charles cover, “Let Yourself Go (Come On),” and jazz mama on “A Great Divide” (which includes a nice sax solo by Clint Maedgen). She even manages to convey the erotic mysticism of the original on her cover of Captain Beefheart’s “Candle Mambo” (with the aid of Steff’s Casio SK-1).
It would be easy to throw LaVere into the group of throwback artists such as Amy Winehouse and Adele. LaVere does not have their powerful vocals (although she comes damn close), but she more adventurous musically. She has the southern drawl of Melissa Swingle of Trailer Bride and the Moaners, and the beauty of Neko Case. Her songs have a freshness that come courtesy of Silvey’s indie pop background. This is good, meaty stuff that only becomes more satisfying with each listen.