Josephine Foster often seems somewhere between an eccentric mystic, twisting her voice around an idea and lifting it off into the stratosphere, and a certain kind of gutsy formalist, interested in tackling musical styles from past lives and traditions, in her own way. Tradition-wise, on I’m a Dreamer she’s partly drawing from country music and partly from Tin Pan Alley; mostly from their intersection, which is a more natural one than you might think.
From the latter angle comes some vaudeville piano, a couple songs that could have been written for the stage – for example, titles like “Sugarpie I’m Not the Same” and “This Is Where the Dreams Head, Maude”—and an album-closing cover of “Cabin in the Sky”, from the 1940 musical of the same name (“We will be / oh so gay / eat fried chicken every day / as the angels go sailing by”).
Supporting the former are the Nashville musicians behind her, playing piano, double bass, drums, some steel guitar and a little cello. It’s a minimalist “unplugged” setting so to speak, though that clichéd word does not let on how starkly beautiful the music can be, or how it helps elevate her singing.
Fitting for both genres is how direct the songs are, comparatively speaking, for Foster. Compared to her equally striking last album Blood Rushing, I’m a Dreamer plays things fairly ‘normal’, yet completely elegantly so. Of course “normal” is a completely inappropriate word for someone as bold in writing and performance as Foster. And within the more straightforward setting there still is plenty of room for weirdness. Listen to “Amuse a Muse”, which starts with a dramatic piano intro a la Liberace or someone, but then finds her singing playfully about the importance of keeping your muse happy in bed, figuratively speaking I suppose.
Still other songs are almost straightahead lonely ballads, of the kind some other singer might be able to tackle. Of course who else could bring such lightness and at the same time strange directness as Foster, on a song like “No One’s Calling Your Name”. Another riveting singing performance comes on the title track, which seems like a self-defining anthem – perhaps why it’s the album title, easily paired on the cover with an old-timey photo of Foster – but in reality is more so a devastating love song, with Harvest or maybe Harvest Moon-ish harmonica no less. “I’m a dreamer”, she sings patiently, “and I dream of you.”
Patience is a virtue, for the listener and the singer. Foster stretches out her words on “I’m a Dreamer”—and even more so on the spectacular, slow “Magenta”—with a gorgeous sense of purpose, almost (though not quite) akin in timing to a famously patient singer like Jimmy Scott. At the same time, Foster also delights in compacting unconventional delivery into a song like the gypsy anthem “My Wandering Heart”, just as she delights in uttering a Rudyard Kipling poem, “Blue Roses”, in an over-the-top literary voice, before gliding into her sung version of the same poem.
Because of both the theatrical side and Foster’s careful wavering between directness and fanciful wanderings, this is perhaps her most fun album, with a sense of humor even within tragic material. At the same time, it’s one of her prettiest, and not lacking for strange pleasures even within a seemingly more conventional setting.