Pat Burtis: Radium Girls
by George Graham
(Blacksmith Shop Records 1153 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/24/99)
Most composer-performers tend to have strength in either in the composing of the music, or in their lyrics. There are the notable musical poets who can make their statement with three or four chords strummed on an acoustic guitar. And there are those whose compositions are marked by interesting musical ideas or particularly good instrumental work, and for whom the lyrics are less important or profound. Both types of specialists have created worthwhile and lasting music. But there are relatively few artists who consistently excel at both areas. Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman and Jonatha Brooke are three who come quickly to mind.
This week we have another such performer who combines thoughtful words with fairly sophisticated musically creative compositions: Boston-based singer, songwriter and guitarist Pat Burtis whose new CD is called Radium Girls.
Pat Burtis has a background that is as interesting as his music: A native of Vermont, he studied creative writing at Dartmouth College, then took a job as a management consultant for a while. Following that, he moved to Sun Valley, Idaho, to concentrate on his creative pursuits, writing a published novel, and also honing his music. In 1995, he moved back to New England, to be part of the active Boston-area music scene, where he attracted as much attention as a guitarist as he did as a songwriter, playing lead guitar with various bands, including his own, the Pat Burtis Band. In 1997, he released his debut CD Three Days in a Box. Now, he is out with Radium Girls, which contains remakes of some of the songs on Three Days in a Box, along with host of new material.
Burtis' credentials in creative writing, and as a notable guitarist both come into play on Radium Girls, an album which spans a lot of influences within the singer-songwriter context. Lyrically, the CD is literate and often clever, with topics ranging from love affairs in disrepair to a letter from a Civil War soldier. Musically, there are some really interesting things going on, like superimposed rhythms and creative and highly original guitar lines on both acoustic and electric guitar. Vocally, Burtis is also appealing with a good clear, folk-style baritone with a rather wide range to fit the diverse material, which can range from very rocky to more laid-back and folky.
He is joined on the album by a tasteful rock band including drummer Ed Arnold, and Mike Rivard -- known for his work with Jonatha Brooke and The Story -- and Ed Henline alternating on bass. The album's producer, who goes by the name "Zoux," is heard on keyboards. Burtis does all the guitar parts, and they can be quite impressive at times. The group is tight and flexible enough to allow Burtis to explore his various musical facets.
The album leads off with a piece that epitomizes Pat Burtis' combination of interesting music and lyrics. The track is called Aphrodite, and in its opening moments conjures up the style of the late guitar innovator Michael Hedges <<>> while the song itself considers the elusiveness of love, as the band deftly negotiates Burtis' intricate tune. <<>>
Somewhat more conventional musically is Three Days in the Box, a remake of the title track from his 1997 album. The song's name comes from Burtis' assertion that the best way to fix a relationship is for the protagonists to spend a lot of time close quarters and work out their differences. The song has a more pop-oriented sound, while the lyrics are up to Burtis' literate standards. <<>>
This album's title track Radium Girls is a reference to the young women who worked in factories in the 1920s applying radioactive radium paint onto the faces of luminous watches. It was considered a good job, and the women often applied the radium to themselves as glowing makeup. But they soon suffered a terrible toll from the effects of the radiation. It's one the album's highlights both lyrically and musically. <<>>
The folkier side of Radium Girls is represented on One By Land, a waltz about a nostalgic yet complicated reunion with an old college friend whose marriage was apparently on the rocks. <<>>
Burtis addresses complicated relationships in another song called Rollercoaster, with uses the metaphor of the ups and downs of the amusement park ride to explore the issues between two people, while the arrangement gets down and funky. <<>>
One of the more musically fascinating tracks is Bootstrap, which is apparently about a drug-dependent or possibly suicidal friend. Burtis sketches portrait in relatively minimal detail. <<>>
The most straight-ahead rocker on the CD is Denim Gun, a kind of love-song at a distance. <<>>
The album ends with Clementine inspired by a letter from Elisha Johnson, a Vermonter fighting in the Civil War, writing to his wife. The folky acoustic instrumentation is a nice contrast to the rockier songs, while the historical lyrics have a timeless quality. <<>>
Pat Burtis' new album Radium Girls is an impressive effort by an artist who is not only a first-rate singer-songwriter-lyricist, but also a versatile guitarist and a composer of often genuinely interesting music that breaks out of the singer-songwriter stereotype. Burtis has worthwhile and original things to say both lyrically and musically, which despite the droves of recent recordings of talented singer-songwriters, is a relative rarity. His music, with its range from folk to rock to funk is both appealing and occasionally intriguing, and on this CD is marked by outstanding musicianship throughout.
Sonically, we'll give the album a "B" grade. The recording itself is good, but the dynamic range is poor -- there was audio compression added to make the sound CD louder, and it's especially disappointing on the acoustic tracks where the ebb and flow of the music is lost.
With the singer-songwriter scene so crowded these days with a surprising amount of worthwhile music, and crowded in part from so many good Boston based artists, Pat Burtis' Radium Girls stands out for its multi-faceted compositions, memorable lyrics and fine musicianship.
(c) Copyright 1999 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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