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(Zoë Records 01143-1008 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/12/2000)
Merrie Amsterburg grew up in Michigan, and though she had little formal musical training, was drawn to her family's piano at a young age. In grade-school she took up the trumpet and by junior high, the guitar. After moving to Boston, she became the lead vocalist for six years in a band called the Natives in the early 1990s, and began to dabble with other instruments, starting with the mandolin, then the bouzouki, since the Greek instrument's range suited her own vocals.
In the mid 1990s, she set off on her own, and eventually released her debut recording Season of Rain in 1996, on a then-local level, followed by national distribution the following year. The CD attracted much critical praise for Ms. Amsterburg's combination of bittersweet lyrics, melodically and harmonically sophisticated tunes that echoed the emotional ebb and flow of her lyrics, fascinating and often unconventional instrumentation, plus her beguiling vocals that at once seem vulnerable and yet cooly contemplative. It was the kind of album that took a while to grow on one, as one discovered its many musical and emotional facets, but a recording that would soon make its mark on all those who heard it. Fortunately, the impact of her songs was not lost in her live performances, as she proved in a 1997 appearance on our Homegrown Music series here on WVIA-FM. She has also performed and toured with other artists from Aimee Mann to Pat Benetar, and she makes an annual appearance at Boston's Fenway Park to lead the gathered throngs in the Star Spangled Banner.
Season of Rain was re-released nationally with some added material, and there was a CD-EP with some more music, but Little Steps is her first full new album in more than three years, and it proves to be worth the wait. While it shares the same producer, Mike Denneen, and many of the backing musicians, this is perhaps even more eclectic a work musically, and a bit more optimistic lyrically than its predecessor. Ms. Amsterburg is in fine form vocally, and she again features an interesting collection of instrumentation, much of it played by herself, ranging from drum loops to a bouzouki, to a pump organ, to a washing machine providing a drone. Lyrically, she takes up subjects like ended relationships, relationships in progress, the dilemma of head versus heart, and even a lullaby, all of which she addresses in her gentle, yet articulate way. The result is an album that's a real gem, with lots of intriguing ingredients that are nevertheless beautifully assembled into a seamless blend.
Ms. Amsterburg is joined on this CD by her frequent musical associate, guitarist Peter Linton, plus drummer John Sands who also appeared on Season of Rain. The bassist this time is Paul Bryan, with a few additional guest appearances, including producer Denneen who played some keyboards. But it is Ms. Amsterburg with her wide array of instruments, some conventional and some not, that provide much of this album's abundant sonic interest.
That is felt right from the start on the title and opening track Little Steps, which is accompanied by the sound of a washing machine, humming in roughly the key of B-flat. It provides a drone to the piece with its hints of Indian tonalities. Lyrically the song is equally original. <<>>
Somewhat more conventional is Design which was to be released as the first single from the album. It's probably the CD's most straightahead pop song, though there are still some interesting and subtle touches. <<>>
My Romeo is an excellent example of Ms. Amsterburg's fascinating writing. Lyrically it's outwardly a straight love song, but it takes twists and turns, with Ms. Amsterburg's harmonically complex composition having the effect of imparting constantly shifting moods. <<>>
Ms. Amsterburg's more musically introspective side comes out on E x E, or "East by East." The cryptic lyrics hint at separation and longing for a reunion. The piece is deceptive in its apparent simplicity. <<>>
Heart of My Head borrows a couple of the musical clichés of the alternative rock scene, such as drum loops, and turns them into something quite interesting. Lyrically, subject of the dichotomy between emotions and reason, is also dealt with creatively. <<>>
One of the CD's finest tracks is called State Highway 16, a kind of bittersweet waltz about the emotionally-wrenching end of a relationship. The song, and Ms. Amsterburg's performance are positively haunting. <<>>
More upbeat, but no less multifaceted is Undertow, a love song with lyrics built on interesting metaphors. <<>>
The album ends with the arrestingly beautiful Sheltering, a genuine lullaby, combining an exceptionally pretty melody with one of Ms. Amsterburg's most sensitive vocal performances. <<>>
In a crowded singer-songwriter scene, Merrie Amsterburg's music is a rare combination of fine lyric writing with really interesting musical compositions, creative instrumentation, and a distinctive and charming vocal style. Her new CD Little Steps, only the second full album under her own name, is one of those records that's many layers deep, revealing some new facet at each listen. The music is sometimes deceptive in its outward simplicity, but scratch the surface and there many fascinating things going on, from the unconventional instrumentation, musical compositions with constantly shifting moods, to the sometimes ambiguous lyrics, to Ms. Amsterburg's subtle but enchanting vocals.
Sonically, the album unfortunately has the all-too-common problem of intentionally degraded dynamic range, with the volume pumped to the point of some distortion on the louder tracks. The music's ebb and flow is one of its distinguishing features, and while some of that is preserved on the CD, the use of less audio compression would have made this an even better listening experience. On the positive side, the recorded sound of Ms. Amsterburg's vocals preserves a wonderful sense of intimacy.
Merrie Amsterburg's Little Steps is not the kind of album to hit you over the head at first, but it's a genuinely brilliant record that through its imaginative subtlety will draw you in and not easily release your ears.
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