After being beaten-up (verbally, not physically) by a band that didn’t like the (largely favorable!) review I wrote about their last CD, I’ve resolved to really try to understand what the artists I’m reviewing are attempting to communicate. I mean, I feel like I’ve always done this anyway, but I’m going to push myself to be even more conscious of the need to give a singer or a band their due, by getting at their music from the inside, as it were. No one sets out to make a bad album, so if it doesn’t sound as great as a newcomer might like, then maybe it’s the reviewer that’s at fault. Or so the theory goes.
So, first up in my new regime of reviewing: Noe Venable is a 23-year-old singer/songwriter from San Fransisco. No Curses Here is her second record, following up You Talkin’ to Me. I feel inclined to like her and her music, but I can’t say that, even after repeatedly listenings, I was all that moved or engaged by her album. I should hasten to add, though that this doesn’t mean that it isn’t good or worth checking out.
There’s no question that Venable has abundant talent as a singer and that she’s an especially gifted lyricist: she’s one of those artists whose lyrics are as interesting on the page as through stereo speakers. On “Alcina’s Things,” the list of Alcina’s favs is deftly chosen, and Venable paints an intimate portrait of an individual through feints and provocations: “Of fat to chew, the seventh rib / Of ocean kind, the electric eel / Of heights, the crest of jackknife / Falls / Of table scraps, the rotten peel / Of habitats, the barren land / Of maps, the palm upon the hand / Of fools, the sentimental man / Of weaknesses, Achilles’ heel.” The writing on the rest of No Curses Here is just as supple and intelligent.
If I can’t heap accolades on No Curses Here, it’s perhaps because the themes that Venable explores—love, loss, confusion, personal exploration—have been thoroughly gone over by literally hundreds of other talented musicians in the folk genre. It’s no doubt unfair, but because of this, there has to be something distinctive about the music or the vocals to make one stand out above the crowd. Tracy Chapman has that voice of hers, and a band like the Cowboy Junkies has the musical chops of Michael Timmins to go along with the ethereal voice of his sister, Margo. Venable has an appealing, Suzanne Vega-esque voice and musical sensibility, but her strong lyrics suffer in their musical cocoons: the all-too familiar arrangements stifle her talent rather than allowing it to transform into something that can fly. Still, I have the feeling that Venable is going to put it all together soon and break over us one day like Tracy Chapman did way back when. And when she does, she’ll be here to stay.
I think that’s more or less fair.