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George Graham's Weekly Album Review #1702

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Rebecca Loebe: Circus Heart
by George Graham

(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/24/2012)

One of the factors that makes singer-songwriters so durable as an artistic format is the remarkable variety of performers on the scene and what a broad range of stylistic elements they can bring together. There are, of course, large numbers of acoustic-guitar-based artists who carry on the folk tradition that gave rise to the singer-songwriter in the first place. But there are others who range from rocky to jazzy to funky in their presentation of the songs they write and sing.

This week we have a new recording from an artist who includes a lot of stylistic variety in her music, and is also clever lyrically and boasts a fine voice. She is Rebecca Loebe, whose new second full-length CD to be widely released is called Circus Mind.

Like many of the more distinctive singer-songwriters on the scene, Rebecca Loebe has an interesting story. A native of Arlington, Virginia, Ms. Loebe credits her father with supporting her music at an early age, getting her an electric guitar at age 12 while she took music classes at school. She got advance placement, graduated high school a year early and age 17 enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, graduating with a degree in music production and engineering. Though she was creating her own music, recording engineering was what she felt she wanted to do for a career, and was lucky enough to land a full-time job at a studio right after graduating. But her recording instructor kept encouraging her to do her own music, and she increasingly spent more time at it, recording some of it at the studio where she worked, and then starting to go on tour. She decided to take the plunge and do music full time about five years ago, giving up her apartment and living out of her car as an itinerant folk musician for over a year. She eventually settled in Atlanta, where she wrote the material for her 2010 album Mystery Prize.

In the meantime one of her recordings somehow got into the hands of a producer for the commercial TV talent exploitation show called "The Voice," and she was invited to appear with the celebrity "judges" including Christina Aguilera. She did well appearing on two episodes. She was described on the show as being "homeless." But after that she went back to touring and picking up free-lance recording engineering jobs. More recently she settled in Austin, Texas, but recorded new album in Nashville.

Her new CD Circus Heart is a great collection of songs with often-witty lyrics and some great wordplay. Ms. Loebe is a fine vocalist with all the traditional formal qualities: a clear but strong voice, great enunciation and excellent pitch. Her musical colleagues on the album include a multi-instrumentalist called Matt the Electrician who also served as producer, and Mark Anderson, who also plays a bunch of different instruments. There are some supplemental musicians on bass, drums and backing vocals on some tracks, but it's mostly Ms. Loebe and her two main collaborators. Among them, they use a bunch of different instruments and toys -- literally a toy piano among them -- and things like ukulele, trumpet, euphonium, jaw harp, and vintage analog synthesizers. They give the album an often sprightly quality that can at times seem a bit old-time-theatrical like vaudeville, but also providing interesting combinations of sounds to go with Ms. Loebe's songs. Most of the lyrics are love songs in one form or another, but most also have some kind of twist.

The opening track is a good example of the clever approach on the album. The song is called Darlin', and it features Ms. Loebe's witty lyrics and a musical setting that has a kind pre-rock retro quality. <<>>

The title piece Circus Heart continues the appealing mixture of slightly quirky lyrics with the kind of musically whimsical setting that makes it a fun track. <<>>

A song called Georgia has somewhat curious lyrics. It's about homesickness for the Peach State, but apparently from the standpoint of someone who has died and is looking down on the scene. <<>>

High & Lonesome gets back to the kind of pre-rock retro sound, though the mix of instrument sounds defies any tradition. The well-written song draws on Ms. Loebe's itinerant life. <<>>

There is one track that could be described as a pop song. Swallowed by the Sea is written with a few of the cliches of the commercial scene, though the backing is more tasteful and some of lyrics might be a bit too literate for the pop world. <<>>

Ms. Loebe includes one cover on her album. She turns Joan Jett's Bad Reputation into a kind of vaudeville novelty song, and in the process again shows her creativity. <<>>

The closest thing to an acoustic folk-style song on the album is Mercy, with rather introspective lyrics. <<>> But there is a little twist, with a kind of Salvation-Army styled brass band added. <<>>

The album ends with a song no-doubt inspired by Ms. Loebe's time spent full-time on the road. Vagabond Prayer is about what its title suggests. <<>>

Rebecca Loebe's new CD Circus Heart is a fine record by yet another of the hundreds of singer-songwriters on the scene. She brings an appealing combination of great composing, including witty lyrics and an impressive voice, together with clever and eclectic musical accompaniment that breaks out of the typical acoustic-guitar-based folkie mode. It's all very well done and tastefully handled.

Our grade for sound quality is pretty close to an "A." With Ms. Loebe having had a career as a recording engineer herself, one can hear that care was taken in the making of the recording, which interestingly was engineered and mixed by someone else, Mark Addison. Ms. Loebe's vocals are especially well-recorded, and the audio is not overly compressed, showing a little dynamic range.

Sometimes performers with an interesting story bring that into the making their music. That is apparent in the creative and multifaceted new recording by Rebecca Loebe.

(c) Copyright 2012 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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