Patty Larkin: Red = Luck

[19 May 2003]

By Barbara Flaska

Patty Larkin has been releasing albums since the early ‘80s. Red=Luck is her tenth album and my first exposure to the long-playing world of Patty Larkin. This is an extremely cohesive record in terms of themes, in large part due to her focused artistic process. She holed up in a remote corner of Cape Cod with her dog, a copy of Neil Young’s Harvest, and a cassette recorder. After two months of steady writing and singing, interrupted only by the events of 9-11, the songs on Red=Luck emerged. While the material is sometimes a challenge to hang on to, that’s likely a result of the overriding theme that life is a difficult thing to just get through. The wheel of fortune revolves unpredictably and only provides an always-treacherous grasp. Because of its very thematic unity, Red=Luck is more like song cycle about moving through life in difficult, challenging times. Despite a surrounding atmosphere of sophistication, with measures of good taste, this is occasionally a little dark, and Larkin’s voice sometimes sounds downright cynical, once in awhile sneering. All of which is fine if you’re in the mood for it.

Larkin describes the project like this: “These songs came out of a great sense of longing; of being cut off from feeling whole; of separation. How does one sustain one’s self when the collective soul is damaged? These songs are about a loss of innocence and Red=Luck is a mediation on hope.”

The whole CD seems like it’s placed in a season about to change into another and it’s raining, wherever or whenever you happen to listen to it. The mood is not melancholic, but more like feeling a bit let down though gearing up to persevere, whether feeling stoic about getting on with things or not. Because as the record moves on, you as the listener know you must find your own path through an unknown future. And it’s raining and you have time to reflect.

The heavy reverbed notes ringing out from an electric guitar are the very first notes on the first song, resounding like thick drops of rain patterning a roof. “All That Innocence” is deceptively simple, repetitive as the rhythms of a squall, but it’s all about the resignation of weathering the storm. The lyrics are delivered in a soft, hushed voice: “East is East and West is West / There’s no where else to go”. So you’re feeling a little stuck. It’s probably a Sunday morning and it is undoubtedly raining. But you’ve got a ticket tucked away in your pocket.

The early songs continue as contemplations of coming to terms with past relationships as a way of preparing for the future. “Children” progresses through the various stages of growth, from children literally growing up and into independent adulthood. At the beginning of the song, her refrain “Where are those children now” can be interpreted simply as wondering what became of her young friends. When repeated towards the end, the same refrain still wonders what became of her young friends, but at the same time pondering the loss of fearlessness and enthusiasm that can come with age and experience. You can’t miss it until it’s gone, and you can’t hope to regain it until you know what’s missing.

The most upbeat song is the midtempo rocking “Too Bad”. The electric guitar swoops with chiming fuzzy held notes while thinly recorded snares strike a cadence like a slightly quickened heartbeat: “Too bad we never got over our selves / Too bad we never got a hold of our selves”. Like a relentless tide, the memories and personal insights just keep rolling on in.

Patty Larkin is a fine singer and player. Her arrangements are complex, layered with loops and strange mixes of instruments and sounds arriving in unpredictable places. As a composer, she has an intelligent, and enviable, approach to lyrics. The songs here all display an uncanny knack for expression despite economy of words. When reminiscing or telling stories, she is quite gifted at sketching an outline with just enough accent of color, be it a detail of place, action, or character, to evoke a particular mood. With 14 songs, each standing alone while faceting a slightly different view of the major theme, the message comes across. If Larkin were a painter, this would be her “Red” period.

Overall, Red=Luck is fine stuff, and can be recommended for the forward leaning listener who isn’t afraid of feeling or working through feelings. Larkin’s struggling her way through this. That means you will be, too. There is enough substance that you won’t want to overdo it by setting the disc for heavy repeat play, though. Especially when it’s raining.

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