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(Lost Gang Records 1408 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/28/2012)
As has been noted previously in this series, there has been a revival of the vocal style that by women artists I and others have called the chanteuse. It's a sometimes romantic approach that evokes jazz, ballad and torch singers of the past, occasionally with a touch of the exotic. It became a bit of a trend a decade ago with the popularity of Norah Jones' debut album, and since then, there have been some notable singers who have emerged fitting the description, such as Madeleine Peyroux, Judith Owen, Erin Bode and Robin McKelle, all of whom we have reviewed in this series. The opposite of the chanteuse is the energetic rock singer like the late Janis Joplin. And one would think that there would not be much common ground between country music and the quasi-sophisticated aura of the chanteuse. But this week, we have an album that I think could probably be called a kind of country chanteuse recording. It's by a Canadian-born singer-songwriter named Lindi Ortega, and it's her second release called Cigarettes & Truckstops.
I suppose that if you look back before country music got so twangy or just plain commercial, there was a kind of prototype of what a country chanteuse would be, the late Patsy Cline. Her songs were romantic, but with the proper amount of country heartbreak in the lyrics, along with a fairly sophisticated musical setting. Lindi Ortega follows in Patsy Cline's footsteps in a way, but sets out in a somewhat different direction, with a bit more of Dolly Parton in her vocals, often displaying a little catch in her voice that has been a trademark of a number of classic singers going back to Buddy Holly.
Lindi Ortega is the daughter of a Northern Irish mother and a Mexican father. She was born and raised in Canada and has been performing since age 16, when she took up the guitar. She was drawn to the honesty of country music, and delved into Hank Williams, drawing influence from a biography of the country pioneer, and how he was influenced by the blues. So she brought some of that approach into her music. She released a CD called Little Red Boots in 2011. For her new recording, she decided to come to the root of country music and moved to Nashville, where she hooked up with another Canadian-born artist and producer Colin Linden, who had handled production duties for Bruce Cockburn, parts of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, and classic group The Band when it reformed some years ago. Linden has also released a series of well-regarded eclectic blues-influenced recordings of his own. Ms. Ortega was particularly impressed with Linden's Dobro playing, in which his style is more blues than country.
The result of the collaboration is a first-rate album that outwardly evokes an older era of country music, including in its sonic approach. But beneath the outer layer, it's quite eclectic. Ms. Ortega's voice can soar but keeps a degree of elegance, mixing the torch singer, with some country twang. She is a great lyric writer, addressing some of the classic country topics of heartbreak, separation, and traveling, often adding some wit to the mix. The instrumental backing is quite tasteful and interestingly, with all the country influence and sad songs, there is not a steel guitar to be heard anywhere. It can at times evoke Patsy Cline and at others Johnny Cash. Colin Linden plays his Dobro, but true to form sounds bluesy rather than like bluegrass or country. The combination forms a distinctive sound, one that will quickly draw one in, having you wondering at times if it's some kind of just-discovered historic recording.
Opening is one of a couple of road songs on the album, the title track, Cigarettes & Truckstops. The retro sound is immediately apparent from both the lyrics and the tune with its arrangement. <<>>
One of the more whimsical tracks is The Day You Die, co-written with one Bruce Wallace, a fun love song that shows some Johnny Cash influence in its sound. <<>>
A tune in the kind of classic melancholy lyrical mood is Lead Me On, a track that Ms. Ortega and her musical colleagues allow to go into full retro country mode. <<>>
The bluesy side of the album comes out on Don't Want to Hear It, probably the most energetic track on the album. <<>>
Though Ms. Ortega says some of her songs are autobiographical, there is one that says she was inspired by Johnny Cash's Murder album with its fictional crime songs. In her song Murder of Crows the protagonist is in the regret mode for having committed homicide and hiding the body. Colin Linden's Dobro gets a good workout in this kind of low-down blues. <<>>
Ms. Ortega continues on the topic of death on Heaven Has No Vacancy, in this case finding that the song's main character is not going to be allowed into the Pearly Gates. <<>>
There are two consecutive tracks that are the opposite of each other lyrically. High is plaintive-sounding consideration of taking care of ones problems chemically. <<>>
That is immediately followed by Use Me which says that says that love is better than any drug. Ms. Ortega's vocal on the track is something to behold. <<>>
Lindi Ortega's new second CD Cigarettes & Truckstops is a distinctive and appealing album of retro country by a vocalist who can span echoes of torch singers in the past to over-the-top twang. The CD combines great writing, including lyrics that can sometimes be tongue-in-cheek, with outstanding musical arrangements that can evoke old country but manages to avoid Nashville cliches. There are some echoes of the sound of the production that Owen Bradley did for Patsy Cline, together with a sometimes bluesy quality, swimming in a kind of old-fashioned reverb filled sound. Ms. Ortega is an impressive performer and Colin Linden's production fits her music perfectly, with the eclecticism of both artists.
Our grade for sound quality is about an B-plus. Sometimes Linden and mix engineer Darryl Neudorf overdid it with the reverb, with things getting murky sonically, but Ms. Otega's vocals are reasonably well-captured. Dynamic range is mediocre at best.
The first line of Ms. Ortega's publicity bio says that "Nashville beckoned and Lindi Ortega answered the call." This Canadian artist has made an impressive recording by evoking some sounds from the past, but also adding plenty of her own distinctive character.
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