When the Indigo Girls announced they were going back to the acoustic foundation that they’d built their arguably tremendous folk-rock career on, the news was probably met with pleasant anticipation rather than surprise. Although the Indigos began to incorporate a fuller electric sound on 1997’s Shaming of the Sun, and fully realized this shift with 1999’s Come on Now Social, it was never at the cost of their core folk leanings. And while any of their seven prior albums have been much loved by fans, their eponymous, fully acoustic 1989 release is still held up as among the best they’ve ever recorded.
What is slightly surprising is that the move back to the acoustic was prompted by Amy Ray. Between herself and Emily Sailers, Ray was always the one who held up the rock end of things. Her roots were influenced more by Patti Smyth than Sailers’ Joni Mitchell. Additionally, while the Indigo Girls have been a hard-working, hard-touring act since forming in the Girls’ high school days, both Ray and Sailers have found the time and creative energy to devote to various side projects and guest appearances with other musicians. Sailers has contributed her songwriting and performing talents a multitude of places, notably the excellent duet with Vonda Shepard, “Baby, Don’t You Break My Heart Slow”, which appeared on the second Ally McBeal collection, and has generally favored her softer balladeering. Ray, conversely, formed the Daemon Records label to showcase other Southern musicians, especially Southern punk bands, as well as producing her own harder-edged solo album, Stag, last year and team-up touring with the Butchies.
Perhaps Ray had gotten enough of the rock out of her soul for a while to make the return to the mellow a welcome change, but whatever the cause, the results in Become You justify whatever catalyst was necessary to produce the album. While some praised Come On Now Social as a bold step that reinvigorated the creativity of the Indigo Girls, others felt that it swung too far in the opposite direction of the sound that first made them so successful. Become You might justify the feelings of both sets of ears. On the one hand, there is definitely a sense of “back-to-basics” with this disc. On the other, while the reduced electricity is the most immediately noticeable thing about Become You, by the end of the album you realize that a great range of style has been covered in the course of 12 tracks, proof that a return to one’s roots does not necessarily have to mean rehashing the past.
The album starts off with the Ray-penned “Moment of Forgiveness”, a song that seems to be deliberately hushed in order to set the mood of the disc. Become You‘s first single, “Moment of Forgiveness” seems spare on first listen, but returning to the song reveals its depth and warmth. The track is followed by the gorgeous “Deconstruction”, which is primed for becoming one of the all-time classic Sailers tunes. A song about the mutual picking apart of lovers in a long-term relationship, “Deconstruction” is almost ironically titled, as the song itself reveals the balance that the Indigo Girls have struck with their acoustic folk origins and their more recent forays into a full rock sound. Beginning with a lovely piano melody, acoustic guitars and Sailers’ sweet-voiced vocals, vaguely reminiscent of Billy Joel’s “Summer, Highland Falls”, the track builds in instrumentation, adding layers of harmonies, bass and drums in an almost inverse proportion to the paring down of the lovers in the song’s lyrics.
Although Ray turns in the most experimental songs on the disc, she also pens one of the most pop-oriented tunes in the superb title track, “Become You”. Initially sounding very similar to Ray’s previous politically-minded songs in cadence and tone, the almost sunny chorus resolves itself around an up-tempo penny whistle and accordion arrangement. Lyrically, “Become You” certainly upholds the political side of the Indigo Girls’ career. With their activism centered around gay rights, the treatment of Native Americans, environmentalism, and minority issues in general, Sailers and Ray stick out against the traditionally conservative image of their native Georgia. So “Become You”‘s confrontation with Southern tradition comes as no great surprise, but its directness is made more powerful by the personal approach Ray takes. When she sings “Our Southern blood my heresy / Damn that old confederacy”, it’s both angry and pained. The rousing chorus of “It took a / Long time to / Become the thing / I am to you / And you won’t / Take that away / Without a heart / Without a fight” finds Ray almost optimistically claiming the right of equality against the “good ol’ boy” mentality. The fact that this message is delivered in such a happy, confident package puts the song up there with “Shame On You” as wonderfully fun and feisty.
As another critic so astutely put it, in the world of the Indigo Girls, Emily Sailers is the water and air, and Amy Ray is the fire and earth. That hasn’t changed any on Become You, and it’s been such a powerful and successful formula that changing it would be ridiculous, if at all possible. The remainder of Ray’s songs definitely reflect that darker earthiness. “Yield”‘s bluegrass/zydeco stomp feel is undeniably homey, like a backyard party in summer, although it skips through its organ lines and mandolin strumming so quickly that you’re left in mid-dance when the song ends. This is sure to become a favorite in their live shows. But with “Bitter Root” and “Starkville”, Ray really branches out. “Bitter Root” will appeal to anyone who was enamored of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, playing in the fields of old timey with ultra-twangy guitar, deep bass, dirty harmonica and the whole jug-band sound. Aside from “Become You”, “Starkville” may be the most accomplished song Amy Ray delivers on this disc. As stark as the name of the town in the song’s title, strains of a mournful accordion waft behind the walking bass and rhythmic guitar plucking. The addition of almost painful harmonica only makes the song seem even more like a lost Dylan tune. Although different in tone and feel than the other tracks on Become You, “Starkville” is a strong competitor for my favorite.
While Sailers is definitely the more airy and sweet of the two, she spreads her wings on Become You as well. While “Deconstruction” might have been found on any of their previous releases, the wonderful “You’ve Got to Show” is fairly new for the songstress. Intersecting jazz and folk, the song is a torchy lounge affair that melds the Girls’ standard acoustic guitars with a jazzy Wurlitzer, a shuffling brushed beat, wonderful acoustic bass, and a very blue saxophone. The most impressive thing about the song is that the subtleties of the music and styles incorporate so well that you can almost picture Sailers’ normal jeans-and-flannel stage persona transforming into a dimly lit cabaret diva and back again. Mid-album, Sailers returns to her primary loves. “Collecting You” is a beautiful song that fits in nicely with her Joni Mitchell/James Taylor-inspired catalog. “Hope Alone”, co-written with contemporary country songwriter Annie Roboff (Faith Hill, Diamond Rio, Lonestar), is only separated from new country musical success by the lack of a steel guitar. With “Hope Alone”, Sailers proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that she has what it takes to write pop as fluently as she does folk-rock. But it’s the lyrical mastery of “Our Deliverance” that really stands as her high mark on Become You. Hymnal in form, the song moves from discussing the thawing of a relationship to religion to anti-war humanitarianism with mellifluous ease. When she sings “It makes me smile / At my bad poetry”, it’s genuinely humble, but every listener knows that Sailers’ poetry is anything but bad.
If there’s a stumbling block at all on Become You, it’s the two final songs on the album. Sailers’ “She’s Saving Me” and Ray’s “Nuevas Senoritas” are both decent songs in their own right, and on any other album, by any other band, they might be standouts, but here they’re surprisingly ineffective. “She’s Saving Me” features a beautiful melody and some of the best dovetailing harmonies between the two on the disc, but as slow as the pace is, it’s definitely the beginning of the “come down” to the end of the disc. “Nuevas Senoritas” features some interesting warbling guitar and great Southwestern impressionism, but it’s hardly as strong as some of the songs that preceded it. It does, however, have a definite “riding off into the sunset” tone that makes it an appropriate album closer here.
Some of the credit for Become You should also go to producer Peter Collins, who worked with the Indigo Girls on Rites of Passage and Swamp Ophelia. With his guidance, the Indigo Girls first expanded their sound into a fuller use of instrumentation in a way that never betrayed the core of their sound. He obviously hasn’t lost his touch since, knowing when to let the guitars give way to the strains of piano, changing the levels of bass or the prominence of the drums, and generally letting the album roll along like a river, ebbing and flowing with its own organic life. Returning home to their roots meant, for the Indigo Girls, returning to an old friend.
In support of Become You, the Indigo Girls embarked on a small-venue tour early this year, playing to smaller, more intimate audiences in recognition of the increased intimacy achieved on the album. Having seen Sailers and Ray play in large arenas with full accompaniment and in acoustic-only shows, I can honestly say that being able to catch their performance is a treat no mater what, but that such tour is absolutely fitting for the personal approach of this disc. If you’ve ever been an Indigo Girls fan, you’re probably still an Indigo Girls fan. Become You won’t disappoint you in any way. If you aren’t an Indigo Girls fan, listen to Become You to help make your decision. There’s no guarantee that their brand of folk-rock will appeal to you, but Become You is among the best they’ve ever done, and if this album doesn’t charm you, nothing will.
// Notes from the Road
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