[13 March 2006]
Oh, this is a fine album, and you’ve heard it all before. An album of heartache and subtlety that balances folkish introspection with enough bright pop edges to keep your ears happy, The Sound of You and Me is everything you could ask for in a Garrison Starr album. Or a Shawn Colvin album. Or maybe an early Mary Chapin Carpenter album. Or perhaps that first Sheryl Crow album.
Are you getting the picture? Really fine recordings of carefully crafted songs. High gloss acoustic guitars and tastefully arrayed percussion. Vocal harmonies that never sweeten too much. A lead vocalist who can put out vulnerability and yearning with a sense of desire. And it was recorded in Nashville. Go ahead—put it on. If this is your kind of thing, then you can’t go wrong.
The question is this: what will distinguish Garrison Starr’s fifth album from all those others? What will make you put it on again? What does Ms. Starr bring to a field that is not so much overcrowded as it is just shoulder-to-shoulder full up. Why should your collection make a little extra room for The Sound of You and Me? The case for Ms. Starr will have two exhibits: her softly bitten-off twang, and her songs.
Ms. Starr’s voice is pure enough to make you smile and dirtied-up enough to make you smirk. On “Cigarettes and Spearmint”, for example, she floats it over the guitars and gentle cello with a wounded beauty. As the chorus climaxes, she sings “just because I know you’re wandering”, and she draws out that last syllable with a crack and a bent-down bit of southern lilt. It makes her pleas to “kiss me again” just about irresistible. “Let Me in” is more of a rocker, and she snaps the lyrics with understatement: “Open the door and let me in / You know I know you said / You and me would never look this way”. All those short words punch out from her mid-soprano like they were coming from a shy girlfriend who, frankly, knows she’s right this time. On tune after tune, Ms. Starr’s voice retains its spunky identity but also morphs some—finding its plucky way around the feelings behind the words.
Ms. Starr’s songs here cover the usual territory, but then—whose songs don’t? These are almost all tales of destruction, regret, and wistful memory, told (as the album title telegraphs) in the first person and addressing a “you” who exists somewhere in the singer’s past. The words are carefully crafted but march well-trodden ground of romantic trouble and flight with the music is left to do the convincing—and it does. What Ms. Starr does so well as a writer is to write choruses that lift out of the verse convincingly in a small way as well as a big way. On man of the songs, the chorus arrives quietly, leaving a little hole just where we expected a power chord. And that fits the songs perfectly. Not every song seems to conjure this magic. “Big Enough”, with its faux-Beatles coda, just seems misplaced, as if Jon Brion was having an off-day and wandered into the studio with his string section. But more of the songs do work, and well.
The case against Ms. Starr is You and Me‘s production, which is wonderful but blandly so. In a world where anything is possible in a state-of-the-art Nashville studio, there isn’t any particular reason why a singer-songwriter album can’t have some bold flavors or distinctive touches. Pleasant in the way that, say, Nanci Griffith’s productions have been over the years, Neilson Hubbard and Brad Jones settle for the usual battery of strummed guitars and the like. It’s as if you ordered a meal in a good restaurant but then suspected that the chef was using that Stouffers white sauce on the vegetables. I mean, I really like that Stouffers white sauce—but I can get it any day of the week straight from my freezer. The risks they do take, such as that George Martin/Brion-y moment on “Big Enough” clang rather than resound.
For Garrison Starr fans, this album is a very pleasing chapter in a developing novel about a young singer-songwriter finding her way in the public eye. It is lyrically involving and melodically charming, even if this early chapter is like a thousand other coming-of-age stories. (Ms. Starr says that, as a songwriter, she’d love to work up to a career like Bonnie Raitt’s.) If you aren’t already a Starr fan, then The Sound of You and Me is merely a very pleasant singer-songwriter work-out—professional, confessional, and unexceptional—that will tide you over until the next bell-voiced female pop-folkie gets your attention. Me, I happen to have a jones for Lucy Kaplansky and think that she can sing Garrison Starr under the table. But in a marketplace crowded with Jonatha Brookes and Jennifer Kimballs and Sarah Harmers—all fine talents—it’s getting harder and harder to make the truly distinctive album.