[10 September 2009]
PopMatters Features Editor
Hold on, folks, because if she isn’t the second coming, then a raft of the best and brightest musicians in the business are backing the wrong horse.
25-year old Christina Courtin is supported by what is arguably the most ridiculously accomplished band to play on a debut record I have ever seen. It includes bassist Greg Cohen (who co-produces), keyboardist (and Heartbreaker) Benmont Tench, drummer Jim Keltner, pedal steel whiz Greg Leisz, guitar hero Marc Ribot, pianist Rob Burger, and famed multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion. It reads like one of those lists you scrawl at the bar when you’re playing that game where you make up the ultimate supergroup. And then, in what is enough to make even the most jaded music reviewer moon with envy, you find out that she has already played with Antony and the Johnsons, Tom Waits, John Zorn, Yo-Yo Ma, and, probably, John Lennon and Kurt Cobain and Satchmo. I mean, seriously.
This is how talented she is: though trained at Julliard on the violin, she doesn’t even play the violin on this record. “Take that, Julliard!” she writes on her website. Or: Take that! aspiring but clearly hopelessly shitty and never-going-to-make-it singer-songwriters. She’s got your number.
“One of the things I wanted to achieve with my record,” Courtin has said, “was for it to be a real world of its own, with songs that take you somewhere else.” Fearless, profound, and musically fascinating, there can be no doubt that she has met her goal. Courtin’s work is unlike anything else I have heard this year. Though there are moments here that don’t work as well as others—the faux-Parisian goof of “Foreign Country” doesn’t fit, to my ears, with the otherwise profound atmosphere of the rest, while the screamy climax to “Laconia” is plain ugly—the overall quality of the record is impressive. Lyrically precocious, and musically varied, Courtin presents herself as a chameleon, shifting through varied terrain from jazz to folk to country to pop and back again.
On standout tracks like “Green Jay”, “One Man Down”, and “Mulberries”, her voice charms and beguiles, at once reminiscent of Regina Spektor, Emiliana Torrini, Norah Jones, Natalie Merchant, and no one at all. If there is anything that I find myself groping for as far as a reasonable comparison here, it would be an early ‘70s Joni Mitchell: those years between Blue and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter when she made both her best music and her fewest new fans.
There is, ultimately, little commercially-viable about a record such as this. As predictable as this might sound, it is precisely this aspect of the record which charms me the most. It is simply astonishing that an unknown, un-pop-chart-friendly young woman from Buffalo could find herself surrounded by some of the best musicians in the world, and have her debut record produced for a label as prestigious as Nonesuch (home to Bill Frisell, Wilco, the Black Keys, Bjork) with no one involved (unless seriously deluded) expecting anything more or less than the release of an artistic statement.