Knowing What It Is to Be Nowhere
Lucy Kaplansky has one of the better—and most-repeated—biographies in the folk-pop world. She grew up in Chicago and was singing solo in coffeehouses while she was still in high school. As soon as she graduated, she took off to New York to pursue her music career. She became well-known for her harmony vocals, collaborating with folkie superstars like John Gorka and Shawn Colvin, and everyone thought she was going to be a big star, until she dropped everything to go to college, ultimately earning a doctorate in psychology. She became Dr. Kaplansky, working in a New York hospital’s mental ward, and continued to dabble in music; she sang with Suzanne Vega and wailed out a couple of “The Heartbeat of America” jingles for Chevy.
Then, the story goes, she decided to go back to her first dream, and with Colvin’s help released her first solo album, The Tide, in 1994. This record got some big reviews and enjoyed strong sales for a folk album, and she’s been rolling ever since: two more very successful albums, including 1999’s Ten Year Night; status as one-third of folk-pop supergroup Cry Cry Cry; almost permanent rotation on NPR shows; and, interestingly, the occasional gig to discuss TV’s Survivor on the CBS “Early Show”.
How could you not like someone like that? Well, as her fourth solo record Every Single Day proves, it’s impossible. Lucy Kaplansky possesses one of the purest voices on today’s music scene. It’s a wonderful instrument; she is capable of understated drama (“Song for Molly”, “Broken Things”), scathing observation (the title track, “No More Excuses”), and in-your-face sexiness (the astonishing “Don’t Mind Me”, about which more later). It is a versatile gift: she can do folk and she can do white-collar pop, and she’s got a kind of modified country in her voice, which she emphasizes by covering the Louvin Brothers’ “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night”. However, as this version shows, there isn’t enough country in her voice to carry a Louvins cover. (To be fair, no one alive could cover the Louvins and make it work.)
But there are other singers with great and flexible voices. Kaplansky’s big advantage is that she has an intelligence to her voice that few other people on any scene have today. This can work to her detriment sometimes: it is particularly grating to hear her sing “Someone else’s dreams don’t get you nowhere” on “Crazy Dreams”, because the double negative sounds like it’s distasteful to her. I have no idea if Kaplansky is actually smart or not, and it doesn’t matter. She sounds like she could actually hold a conversation for more than five minutes, and that is a rare thing indeed.
And there are several songs on this collection that exploit that intelligence in a good way. The opener, “Written on the Back of His Hand”, is a child abuse song that doesn’t lapse into sentimentality or maudlin group-therapy cliché, as it focuses on the recovery rather than wallowing in the abuse itself. Kaplansky and her lyrical collaborator, husband (and film professor) Rick Litvin, manage to craft a gem here, contrasting a father’s “Gonna show you the back of my hand” with the truly inspirational final verse: “When the stars come out the night is alive / Connect those stars with the lines of your life / With the lines on your hand / With the words that you write / One true word’s gonna beat a pack of lies”.
This meaningful number is just one of the songs here sounding like it was crafted by a knowing and skillful therapist. On “Nowhere”, the album’s most haunting track, the ambiguities mount over the course of the second-person narrative. What is the significance of “The wind on your face is freezing / Someone else’s skin”? Are the secrets “carved under your sweater” psychological? physical? tattoos? the female body? It’s a high-wire lyrical performance of skill and soul, and perfectly suited for The Kaplansky Voice. The chorus, a sympathetic “I know what it’s like / To be nowhere”, could mean “I’ve been there”, but it sounds like what a psychologist might say to a first-time visitor. This makes the ending, in which the protagonist is told to go “to a place you’ve never been before / Go inside, say your name / and close the door”, very powerful and mysterious—it’s just as likely to be a therapist’s office as a drug den or a pimp’s place. Goose bumps abound.
And then there is the flat-out horniness of “Don’t Mind Me”, which seems to be mining the same territory as “Ten Year Night” from her 1999 album of the same name. There is some heat generated by the easy-rocking C&W groove and Buddy Miller’s backing vocals, but it’s lyrics like “It’s just your burning gravity / That brings me to my knees / In front of you” and “I just wanna get you on the ground / Play a little lost and found” that make this one a classic. Now that Liz Phair is MIA, we need this kind of adult sexuality in music. (And all the thirty-something cheesecake photos on the album jacket show that Red House understands.)
Which is not to say that it’s perfect. There is a tendency on some tracks to descend into the kind of too-easy mawkishness that many associate with folk music. The Alzheimer’s story of “Song for Molly” flirts with this, but rings true; the cover of Julie Miller’s “Broken Things” does not, because despite its utter gorgeousness it sounds like an attempt to make people cry. Similarly, the kiss-off tale “Guilty as Sin” is way too simplistic and faux-populist: lyrics like “Do you know how it feels to be second-best” should always be re-thought. But these songs, while not great, are still better than most other people’s A material.
Every Single Day is, simply, a very good and pretty album. But what kind of album is it? This is not really “folk” music, so if you’re looking for Pete Seeger covers or angry tirades against the current administration, you’ll be sadly disappointed. And it’s not really “rock” either, so if you hate acoustic guitars and gentleness, you should stay away from this record. It’s not really country or alt.country, despite the inclusion of the occasional pedal steel guitar. And no one’s sure what “pop” means anymore. What it is, is really good and healing and smart music by a very interesting artist who knows what it’s like to be nowhere, but who very soon might be everywhere.
// Notes from the Road
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