You’ve got in your lap two new albums of material by Edie Brickell. You remember her because, as part of the New Bohemians, she had a jangly-gentle hit in the late 1980s with “What I Am”, and because she married Paul Simon in 1992. You’ll put them on and they’ll be pleasant and fine and…
What were we discussing again? Oh, yeah, the new Edie Brickell albums.
There is a certain kind of tuneful folk-pop music that would be hard to criticize if one were to be fair, but that in 2011, with all the factors fully considered and summed up, also lands on the musical palate with a bit of a fssssss. A nice voice, an acoustic guitar, a sturdy verse ‘n’ chorus kind of songwriting, a gentle examination of personal foibles or relationships or culture: you know this kind of music if you’re over 30, and you probably love some of it. Or plenty of it. Because there is such a plenty of it.
Now, just because Joni Mitchell’s Blue exists does not mean that Edie Brickell shouldn’t make some more music. But here’s the thing: you are excused if even the high quality tunesmithing and breezy/breathy vocals of her two new discs don’t move you. You get a pass if you aren’t paying close attention to her twin releases on her own label, one eponymous and one with the Gaddabouts, which is led by drummer Steve Gadd and features Brickell and her tunes. This is, after all, a whole lot of folk-rock to absorb in one sitting.
You like these records, but listening to them is a slight chore. Edie Brickell has a bounce to it, with her vocals riding atop a coherent band sound throughout. Charlie Sexton produces, and he gets a crisp pop sound that has a dash of Beach Boys, a Beatles glaze, a good dose of Elton John/Billy Joel piano rock. It sounds terrific, but in a slightly workmanlike manner. The opener, “Give It Another Day”, and “Always” both have a clockwork thump as they work their sunny magic, with Bruce Hornsby-ish piano solos by (New Bohemian) Carter Albrecht. “Bad Way” starts with just piano and vocal before exploding into a slick piano/vibes/guitar sound that is a little Ricki Lee Jones, a little Steely Dan, a little late-era Doobie Brothers. Good stuff, but you feel like you’ve heard too much of it before.
The band sounds more interesting when it is playing in a melancholy mode. “Pill” chugs along more atmospherically, though Brickell’s lyric lament for every modern problem from inattention to impotence, that “they got a pill for that”, seems kind of cheap. (Most of the songs here stick to romance and its joys and tribulations—better than social commentary for Brickell, you’ll agree.) “Been So Good” puts a Wurlitzer piano, organ, and bluesy guitar to good (if somewhat Sheryl Crow-ish) use. Better is “2 O’Clock in the Morning”, with a sharp blend of today and yesterday: programmed drums on the one hand, but gorgeous layers of ringing guitars and plunked acoustic piano on the other. You can enjoy it without feeling like you should grow out some ‘70s sideburns.
The Gaddabouts has a different sound, with some slightly quirkier strengths. If you’re a Steve Gadd fan hoping for some drum pyrotechnics, then you are barking up the wrong tree. The band is more spare, with less pop muscle and greater intimacy. “Let It Slide”, for example, has a little island feel, with Andy Fairweather-Low playing tasty acoustic guitar and Pino Paladino playing just a little of the bass he’s capable of. “Mad Dog” and “Remind Me” are decidedly old-timey, with some barroom piano tinkling or some bluegrass picking riding over a two-step feeling. How about the tango groove driven by Gil Goldstein’s accordion on “My Heart”? Then there’s what sounds like a quietly swinging jazz standard in “They Say Everything”.
You will find this record charming in this kind of zesty understatedness. And while the sounds alluded to on The Gaddabouts come from a much wider spectrum that those on Edie Brickell, they still have the effect of reminding you of other records. Good ones, but still.
You might wonder why Mr. Gadd, who can groove a band within an inch of its life, didn’t push for more tunes like “Gonna Hold On”, which kills. Built on a killer blues guitar lick that moves the band into an amazing soul shuffle, “Gonna Hold On” makes Brickell sound like a hip jazz/soul songstress, and then contrasts her airy blues sound with a husky baritone sax solo by Ronnie Cuber. Man, a whole album of songs in this mode would be a fresh and new sound. Still, we get this one and “More Than Anybody”, in a similar mode. Nice.
It has to be said that Brickell’s voice not only remains an effective instrument, but, in fact, the production on these records makes it better than it was back in 1988. She has a slightly lazy way with the ends of her pitches, holding a tone, then letting it slide attractively downward. The sound is reedy but direct, and she sounds natural and clear on these records, set against lovely ringing instruments. “You Come Back” from Edie Brickell is a perfect, keening vocal over a simple groove that you won’t get out of your ear for a while. Brickell’s vocals, if not always her songs, remain a real find.