On a balmy night in September 2004, I saw Beth Arentsen perform at The Fez on Lafayette Street in Greenwich Village. Her show happened to mark the end of my first week living in New York City. She sat at the piano, glass of wine in hand, and held the audience spellbound with a trio of songs that could not have been inspired by anything other than her own life. These were not diary entries, mind you, these were wounds set to music that hadn’t quite healed. Like those around me, I sat transfixed. At that particular show, Arentsen performed three songs: “Captain of Me”, “Spider” and “Penelope”, a song based on a myth in Arentsen’s New Jersey hometown about a woman who narrowly escapes death-by-disembowelment. The Fez, sadly, has long shuttered its doors but the melodies of those songs have found a permanent home on Sap, the stunning debut album by Beth Arentsen.
The independent music scene in New York has no shortage of singer-songwriters willing to map their personal turmoil onto music notes. Not unlike her peers, Arentsen’s stories are highly specific, sometimes cryptic, and about as familiar as flipping through a stranger’s scrapbook. Her songs are vessels for a lifetime of broken hearts and unrealized dreams yet she triumphs in making the listener actually care about her battle scars through accessible melodies and an expressive vocal style.
On her debut, Arentsen employs a tight musical unit who create an impressive musical consistency across each of the ten tracks on Sap. Key to the album’s seamlessness is producer Jimi Zhivago, who ensures that Arentsen’s vocals and the keys on her piano are crisp and in the foreground. Brian Wolfe’s deft drum and percussion skills and the mournful cello of Veronica Parrales anchor the songs without overwhelming them. Zhivago adds brushes of bass and organ underneath the tracks to give a richer hue to the album’s acoustic patina.
These elements are marvelously in place on “Used to Dream”, the opening track on Sap. It’s an arresting excursion to the center of Arentsen’s torn heart, with an intensity that builds and ceases to climax until the very last note. “I left you / for the simple satisfaction,” she sings over piano chords that contain just a hint of anger beneath them. “I’m jumping through flame hoops/just to get your reaction,” she continues with Wolfe’s drum shifting the song towards a simmering four-chord pattern. Parrales’ cello punctuates the mounting drama with a bracing staccato rhythm, leading to the chorus wherein Arentsen’s voice, plaintive but not desperate, implores, “It won’t make it right if we / keep it wrong / It won’t make it right if we / go too long / down the same road of the long haul / And I want to go home.” Most impressively, Arentsen sustains that momentum, musically and lyrically, for the bulk of the album’s 45-minute run time.
A waltz-like rhythm envelopes the gorgeous “Captain of Me”, which was one of the songs I heard Arentsen perform at The Fez three years ago. Over an exquisite piano melody, she sings:
If you could only be captain of me
When my tears leak gasoline green
When my sails whip clouds to cream
When I’m crashing on the reef
You’ll choose to sail the sea
The chorus is a beautiful marriage of imagery and music, especially because Arentsen’s phrasing doesn’t render the lyrics secondary to the melody. Each word is sung with intent and purpose. From Arentsen’s lips, the “mm” in “cream” becomes tangible whereas another vocalist might have easily faded the consonant sound into the next line.
“Arms of Three”, another tune wrapped in three-four time, uses a tree as its central metaphor: “And these branches keep falling off of me / wondering when it’s my time of year / I’ll shake these thoughts / they hang off me / branches weak from wear.” A toy solider-marching drum motif links Arentsen to her past, a part of her life that, based on this song, doesn’t seem completely resolved. Though she yearns to “shake” disturbing thoughts from her mind, finding distraction in everything from Central Park to the melody of “Heart and Soul” (“I’m safe when I bang on the keys”), her attempts are in vain. “Arms of Three” ends on a dissonant chord as the drum motif bubbles underneath, emphasizing how parts of Arentsen’s past remain unresolved long after the song fades.
Such intimate moments are in no short supply on Sap, an album that amounts to one of the most promising debuts of 2007. Arentsen’s dreams (“Conquistadora”), nightmares (“Penelope”) and reality (“Like They Care”) fight for our attention while she wrestles through every one of them on her piano. Alternately charming and haunting, hopeful and frustrated, the songs of Beth Arentsen do, indeed, stick like “sap on wood.”