Ever see the old Monty Python “Dennis Moore” sketch? You know, the one where John Cleese plays a Robin Hood figure who steals from the rich and gives to the poor, except the only things he steals from the rich are lupines. Over and over again, lupines. Moore brings his kazillionth delivery of lupines to a peasant couple, who are bitterly living out their lives in a shack stuffed to the rafters with lovely-smelling, pretty, colorful flowers. They complain to the well-intentioned Dennis, begging him to steal something useful, and launch into a Spam-esque diatribe about how all they have to eat are lupines (“braised lupine in lupine sauce”), and complain, “We sit on lupines, we sleep in lupines, we feed the cat on lupines, we burn lupines, we even wear the bloody things!” To which Moore naively responds, “Looks very smart.”
That’s exactly the effect Amy Jane’s CD Wide Open has on the listener. It’s soft, pretty, acoustic, folky music and it is enjoyable, for a while, but it carries on and on for 73 draining minutes. Like the fictional Mr. Moore, Ms. Jane means well, but oh, my goodness, it’s like being trapped in a locked greenhouse with hay fever; it’s an overdose of niceness. Knock off 45 minutes, and you’ve got yourself a really good album. None of the songs are particularly awful, it’s just that after a while they seem to blend into one another in an indistinguishable aural pile of sweet-sounding goop.
In small doses, however, Wide Open is very good. Amy Jane has an enchanting voice. Her voice reminds me of former Velocity Girl singer Sarah Shannon. And for someone so vocally talented, Jane manages to keep things on an even keel instead of resorting to tiresome vocal gymnastics just to show off—something that Sarah McLachlan, Dolores O’Riordan, and basically every pop singer in existence today repeatedly tries to pull off. The production on Wide Open is just as unpretentious. It’s just a bare-bones sound, with plenty of acoustic guitar, piano, and sleepy drumming, but it’s a sound that resonates with warmth.
Indeed, the first five or six songs are beautiful. They’re everything you’d expect from a folk singer: wispy melodies and introspective lyrics. “Wide Open” opens the album, a softly insistent song about, you guessed it, emotional openness (“When I first saw you there was a light in your eyes/But it was starting to go out”). “Weight” is an effective breakup song, and “Unrequited” is relatively self-explanatory, sounding like one of Alanis Morrissette’s more lugubrious songs, but without the high-school journal bombast. Both “It Just Is” and the wistful “In Dreams” are filled with chiming guitars similar to The Sundays, the latter being one of the album’s most memorable moments.
After that, though, things get spotty, as songs start to sound repetitive. The odd gem surfaces during the last 40 minutes, like the slinky, downright carnal “Sweat and Honey”, which overflows with sensuality, something the rest of the album sorely lacks. “Beverly” is a wistful look back on adolescence, while “A Different Voice” combines light drum programming, a radical change for such a simple album, with more of an edge in Amy Jane’s vocal performance. The upbeat, 10,000 Maniacs feel of “In the Beginning” ends the album on a positive note.
Another gripe I have with Wide Open is the omnipresence of producer Rich Marcello, who is credited with writing 14 of the album’s 16 songs, and plays all the guitar and piano on the album. That would be all and well if Amy Jane was a band named after its singer, like PJ Harvey during the early 1990s, but the official web site pushes Amy Jane as a burgeoning singer/songwriter. Granted, she wrote “Unrequited” and “Beverly”, two songs I enjoyed, but you’re left wondering who’s in charge here. Even more odd is how Marcello is responsible for the bulk of, er, feminine-oriented songs, and the thought of a man writing the female fantasy of “Sweat and Honey” and lines like “When I was young / I learned those little girl rules”, all sounds a bit phony.
If Amy Jane continues writing and recording more of her own songs, I’d be interested to hear them. She seems very talented, and hopefully Wide Open will serve as a stepping stone to bigger and more creative things in the future. Right now though, her first album is good, albeit ordinary folk music, but it’s eventually bogged down by too much ambition. In the last verse of the last song on this extremely long album, Amy Jane sings, “We had a full long run didn’t we?” I couldn’t agree more, Amy. I couldn’t agree more.
// Notes from the Road
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