In all the excitement surrounding the move to France, I forgot, ignored or blocked from my mind the fact that my carefully crafted relocation plan meant that I’d be stuck in Paris during the summer.
The place sucks in summer. Invaded by thundering herds of Texans, whose braying accents can be heard clearly above the chatter of the millions of other visitors who descend ravenously on La Ville Lumière, one of the most beautiful cities in the world turns into a chaotic, cacophonous mess, making the natives who either have to stay to feed the tourists or lack the means to get the fuck out one very, very grumpy bunch of people.
And it gets hot. Sticky hot. Smelly hot. Don’t-get-fucking-near-me hot. In dressing for sex, the sophisticated girl’s options are limited to belly chains, nipple clamps and g-strings. Forget the leather collar, forget the leather harness and forget the leather boots. It’s going to be too fucking hot for the full meal deal.
The prospect of two months without leather makes yours truly a very, very grumpy bitch.
Having grown up in San Francisco (where summers are colder than a Minnesota winter) and having then lived in Seattle (where summer lasts as long as it will take me to write this review), I’m programmed to perform in cooler climes. The thought of a hot, sweaty body dripping perspiration all over my sensitive skin turns me off faster than a photograph of Wayne LaPierre. I don’t have to worry about the NRA here, but I do have to concern myself with the fact that I’ll be facing two months of unpleasant heat—and during that time, I’m going to have needs, people! The only air conditioning I can access is in the office, and I’m certainly not going to transform my office into a playroom! What I need to overcome my aversion to hot and sticky is something to reprogram my brain so that I can convince myself that hot and sticky can mean . . . hot and sticky.
I need Sasha Dobson.
Sasha Dobson is a jazz singer recently reclassified as a singer-songwriter. That sounds like we’re filling a filing cabinet, and as is often the case with genres, it completely fails to capture the experience of her music. It’s more accurate to say that she is a singer with an exceptional ability to find the groove of a song and create the magic we call mood. Her jazz experience makes her aware of possibilities in melody and phrasing that elude the average singer, and she is blessed with a voice that reminds me of a sweet alto sax or the feel of Chambord as it slowly coats the throat and warms the cockles. She is sultry and sexy but not in the manufactured Madonna style. The combination of her essential sincerity, an amazing voice and a supporting cast of musicians who also know how to find the groove makes Aquarius a perfect album to put you in the mood, whatever the weather.
Aquarius opens with “Couldn’t Let You Go,” a song that captures the feeling of intense desire that burns brightly despite physical or metaphorical distance. I love the opening line, “Once we danced along the diamond sky,” but I love even more how Sarah’s voice oscillates between woman and child, from experience to innocence. The backing music establishes the general mood of the album, one of consciously chosen restraint, like the prolonged tension we experience in great foreplay. The rhythm is basic but intense; the guitar is limited to two-note chords on the lower strings; the bass mirrors the steady pounding of the heart as the heat slowly rises.
“Always Be Mine” begins almost a “come with me to the Casbah” feeling in the verse, with the guitar notes stretching to create unexpected chord combinations through single-note picking. The verses reflect a feeling of trying to get one’s head around something and taking a roundabout route to get there, but all doubt is removed when Sasha finds a mantra in the chorus: “All I ever wanted/all I ever need . . . ” You don’t need to fill in the blanks with anything explicit to get the meaning. “Full Moon” follows, a song with a film noir story line that mirrors the smoky sultriness of that genre:
Red in her eyes
red in her hand
blood in her mind
Lovers making out
It’s a full moon out
Your tongue’s in his mouth
He didn’t even try
Tongue in his ear
gun in her hand
Lovers making out.
The tension continues on slow burn with “Make It Alright.” I love Joel Hamilton’s lead guitar on this song: so subtle, restrained and sweet, and flavored with just the amount of reverb so that when it moves to the fore from the counterpoint the transition is as smooth as scented silk. One of the lovelier songs on the album, Sasha’s vocal is both plaintive and steady as she tells the story of love gone sour. It’s followed by “Take My Heart,” an ode of longing for a simple life and Sasha’s desire to “feel the love surround me.” The vocals on this track are simply amazing, as Sasha introduces some fabulous harmonies and subtle scat to liven up the soundscape. The only problem I have with this song is I wish it would have ended with a long fade of Sasha using that gorgeous voice as the beautiful instrument it is . . . but I’ll take whatever she can give:
“The Day We Met” is a lovely, softer number where the acoustic guitar is the central instrument and where the scat is subtle and a tiny bit playful. More soothing than sultry, it serves to ease the delicious tension of Aquarius just a tad—a necessary shift because the next song, “Burn,” is one of the hottest songs on the album. The feel of this song reminds me of Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” but with good, solid electric bass and drums instead of double bass and finger snaps. The muted guitar two-note guitar chords occasionally catch the higher notes on the fretboard, indicating that the tension is about to burst. When Sasha does her “ooh ooh ooh” lines on the bridges to the chorus, all I can say if that doesn’t make you wet (ladies) or hard (gentlemen), check your pulse or call the mortician:
The song that really gets my fluids dripping comes next. “Answer Me” is a song with a darker feel and a vocal loaded with glides, blue notes and shifts from simmering heat to kittenish vulnerability that recalls some of the best of Billie Holiday, updated for modern sensibilities:
Any song that comes after that mini-masterpiece would come as a letdown, and at first I found probably explains why I find “José” relatively unsatisfying, but grew to appreciate its subtle arrangement over time. “I Could Be Happy” also lacks the intensity of some of the stronger songs, but the drum roll that opens “Sex Degrees” re-engages the attention and leads to one of the more interesting combinations of melody and lyrics on the entire album, describing a situation where sex is seen as both an expression of essence and something all-too ephemeral:
Sex degrees of separation
It’s just a matter of time
We’ll screw our way to salvation
until we find
You’re always saying goodbye
holds the key
In to a space that we went once
Let love be (2)
“Family” ends the album with a longing for the continuity of family, the experience that creates little family members or both. Certainly the bounciest number on Aquarius, it works because the melody is catchy, the band is tight and Sasha could probably sing the phone book and I’d be perfectly content.
Sensuality aside, what I appreciate most about Sasha Dobson is that her music feels genuine. When I listen to Aquarius, I hear a person finding herself and becoming who she wants to be. With her natural talent, commitment to her art and fundamental sincerity, I look forward to following her on her musical journey as it unfolds over the coming years.
I used to be an ardent admirer of Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian fame. Sigh. Such a fine songwriter! The Boy with the Arab Strap was one of my favorite albums of all time and I didn’t miss Isobel or the alt-Stuart when they decided to split. I loved The Life Pursuit, too!
Then Stu got a spread in the New York Times Sunday Magazine and started to believe he was as great as they said he was and became yet another pretentious musician with a pretentious fan base (who insist on describing Belle & Sebastian’s music as “art,” the kiss of death for any band).
Anyway, Murdoch’s demise left me a-yearning for something from Bonny Scotland, which led me to stumble upon Admiral Fallow. This is a more folk-influenced band with delightfully intense Scottish accents who have been playing second fiddle to bands like Belle & Sebastian for a few years. I downloaded a copy of their latest release, Tree Bursts in Snow, and I am here to make my official pronouncement about its worth.
Definitely worth it and then some!
Singer-songwriter Louis Abbott is front man and songwriter for the band, and he sings his lyrics with passion and precision. While I certainly would have appreciated a digital booklet (and the lyrics deserve one), I had no problem following and the words and the subtext.
And the band is so very, very good! The precision never turns sterile, the arrangements are often complex but never interfere with the stories in the songs and the diversity of sound is remarkable for the genre. The strings are particularly moving and lovely in the song “Burn,” and the simple guitar pluck-accordion-clarinet-bass-drum arrangement of “Oh, Oscar” creates a moving musical picture.
Tree Bursts in Snow opens with the lovely voice of Sarah Hayes on the semi-title track, “Tree Bursts.” Sarah and Louis alternate passages in a superb build that moves from soft to full band to pure acoustic sounds and harmonies. The song is a courageous opener, for they’re singing about things that most of the people in our vampire-and-tits obsessed world would like to avoid. Louis Abbott described the work like this:
“The title refers to the sound and the image of an artillery shell exploding into a cluster of snow-drenched trees.…I’m also astounded by the sheer volume of gun related violent crimes throughout the world but in particular in the U.S. The lyric from ‘Tree Bursts’ was inspired by the idea of the effect that losing friends through violence, in particular during times of war or conflict has on young men and women. They are ‘the leaves that fall louder than backfire, all orange and Halloween red.'” (Source-Wikipedia, “Admiral Fallow”).
The second song is the explosive driver, “The Paper Trench,” which would be a kick to dance to in an open floor pub somewhere deep in the back streets of Glasgow. Not a band to back off, they treat us to another energetic piece, “Guest of the Government,” a song with pointed and insightful lyrics about the waste of life and energy we know as drug abuse. The powerful catchiness of this song has made it impossible for me to get it out of my head for weeks, so now it’s your turn:
Sarah and Louis come together again on the “Beetle in the Box,” a piece grounded in a steady dance beat and spare arrangement that allows you to appreciate the vocal duet . “Old Fools” is a more reflective piano-based number that gives us a bit of a breather before the fabulous sing-along folk-anthem, “Isn’t This World Enough?” The line “All those living in splendor and in sunshine/Isn’t this world enough?” should be tattooed on every forearm attached to a person obsessed with first-world problems. “Brother” features toe-tapping beats and a rising and falling melodic line that beautifully carries the story of human disconnection.
“The Way You Were Raised” is my absolute favorite. I love the way its insistent rhythm, piano touches and dreamy flute mingle to create a soundscape with just the right amount of space to for Louis to relate the tale of his violent journey of self-discovery. In this song, the journey is an escape— the escape from the expectations and traditions of masculine pride and combative challenge:
‘What was that?’ as the stuff that I spout leaves my lips
There, a crack from behind from some cat with a death wish
And the twitch takes the trail south to my heels
To the homeless steel toe capped edge
And though hopped up on black juice with red eyes and fists
The sight of my future bout rids me of red mist . . .
Strength in numbers and width like two bears on a mouse
I give a thought to the organ that beats in my mouth
And say balls to a hurricane
I’ll toast to my health
Everyday it’s the battering of bones
It’s the saving of face
It’s the courage to turn your back on the way you were raised
All of us—even me with my delightfully tolerant and open-minded parents—have been shaped by the way we were raised. We get our all-important definition of “normal” through that experience: the cherished traditions, the do’s and don’ts, the shoulds and shouldn’ts. Forging an identity separate from parental and traditional expectations is necessary to initiate the process of individuation, the path to becoming one’s true self. It takes courage to do that because we are all conditioned to seek approval from those who guide us, our peers and our families. “The Way You Were Raised” deals solely with the heavy expectations heaped upon men, but the concept is universal: we all have to face the choice of exercising the courage to be ourselves or go along to get along.
Tree Bursts in Snow is a strong, passionate, exciting and soul-level delightful work that should be celebrated by all. Let’s hope Louis avoids The Murdoch Trap and maintains his artistic integrity so we can hear more from this wonderful band in the near future.