[21 January 2014]
There is nothing wrong with Lucy Wainwright Roche’s There’s a Last Time for Everything. But it might be a stronger album if there were.
There’s an awful lot of musical talent in the genes of Lucy Wainwright Roche – her name alone checks her father Loudon and mother Suzzy. Throw in half-brother Rufus and Uncle Sloan on her dad’s side and the rest of the Roches (listen to “We” if you need their names) and you’ve got yourself one talented family.
Fortunately, Lucy isn’t beholden to any of them.The 33-year-old is firmly rooted in coffeehouse singer-songwriter folk, and she’s damn good at it. Her mezzo is like a hug, solid and vulnerable, containing heavy traces of Emily Saliers and aunt Kate McGarrigle, and her songs are built upon defiantly simple folk progressions (she employs the much-derided I – V – VI – IV combo in more than one tune) that serve as solid platforms for her melodies and to-the-heart lyrics. It’s almost impossible to find fault in her music.
What the album could use, however, is a little fault. While some of the songs are gussied up with overeager arrangements featuring strings, horns, and odd percussion, it’s Roche’s delivery that keeps some of these songs at an arm’s length. Never cold but almost always restrained, her mezzo stays right on track, clinging to the melodies with only hints of the emotions hidden in her lyrics. It’s not that her songs demand emoting, but a little more expression, a deviation from the written notes here and there, a less-than-expected turn, could keep some of these tracks from feeling so grounded (the production, which coats her voice in a little too much reverb, is probably a factor as well). This is music to get lost in, not music that leads you in any particular direction.
But when the songs connect, the album works beautifully. “Seek and Hide” finds a self-reflective lyric (“I fell in love last year / It’s not a thing I do a lot”) merging perfectly with a lovely melodic uplift, and even the unnecessary cameo by the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy can’t stop us from dreamily swaying along with this tasty slice of folk-rock. “Look Busy” finds Roche checking in on a broken-hearted friend, and although the slow tempo threatens to derail the mood, piano ballads don’t get much warmer. The chords may be simple, but the sentiments are charmingly adult and accessible.
The strongest track is actually a cover: Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend”. Roche’s version is stripped down to one guitar and a quartet of backup singers, but it’s just as compelling (if not nearly as ebullient) as the original: wonderfully brave, direct, sensitive, and wise. Roche does a nice job showing a mix of pathos and triumph that few singers would touch, or even consider.
But the difference between the cover and Roche’s originals is telling. Even as a ballad, “Call Your Girlfriend” is immediately compelling and demanding; when Roche’s words aren’t as gripping, the path isn’t easy to find. “The Year Will End Again” opens the album with a nice drive and lilting melody, but the chorus of “Hesitation in everything you do / Destination never out of view” doesn’t soar enough to lift the song above its distracting string-quartet arrangement. “Last Time” dips perilously close into Jewel territory (“Between forever and one day / There is the finest line”), while “Monte Rosa Range” echoes the country side of the Indigo Girls, but Roche doesn’t give either the expression they need to really register. Similarly, “Canturbury Song” is at its most compelling – and energetic – during the thrilling wordless vocal bits that end all too quickly. And it’s easy to lose your way in the lulling waltz of “A Quiet Line”, even though the contrast of guest singer Mary Chapin Carpenter’s voice to Roche’s is fascinating.
Still, there is so much to recommend here. As a storyteller, Roche has such a fine ear for detail (“After dinner, kitchen quiet / Hot air from the dishes washed”) that her delivery and basic progressions are usually enough. She also has the wisdom to close the album with the mature “Under the Gun”, the kind of sadly hopeful tale that perfectly suits her voice (and that of guest Robby Hecht), even if it has to compete with a couple nagging clarinets. But here’s hoping she allows herself to take some chances and convey more of the deep soul that inform her songs in the future. On There’s a Last Time for Everything, Lucy Wainwright Roche shows us she’s a big talent with her own flawless voice; her music will be more compelling when she allows her voice a flaw or two to guide us through her music.