“I’ve fallen in love with Lissie — head & shoulders above anything I’ve heard in a long time.” Now, I’ll forgive you for not trusting my judgement — hell, we’ve only just begun — but that opening statement came from the man behind Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart. Yes, Sir David of Lynch. The Lynchmeister. The outsider’s outsider. This is the word of our Lord. So, it’s with great trepidation that I lower the needle onto Lissie’s début and dip my quill nervously into the black. Would I forsake our leader like some younger, hipper Judas?
Lissie was born on the muddy banks of the Mississippi (well, nearby) and Catching a Tiger flows with the terrible beauty of the South’s mighty lifeblood. It’s Mark Twain with a Telecaster. Her bio even paints a youth split between singing in church, dyeing her hair with pen ink and getting 86’d from school. Clearly, girl’s got guts. It’s a road trip record, softly bidding adieu to small town security for the blinding bright, big city lights. In “Welcome to the Jungle” terms, it falls somewhere between Witness and Midnight Cowboy. You get the picture. Each track blooms from tiny acorns to mighty oaks, gradually floored by Lissie’s barnstormin’ vocals. “Carry this torch and use your voice,” she calls.
Catching a Tiger is pretty darn eclectic with the quality dial rarely dipping below “Danger High Voltage”. Each song carefully marks out its territory from the Tom Waits’ pots-and-pans rattle of “Record Collector” and the “Let It Be” piano of “Bully” to the West Coast ’70s power pop of “When I’m Alone”. Some songs are kissing cousins of Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac with Lissie channeling Stevie Nick’s more flammable witchcraft. Facemelter “In Sleep” in particular burns like “Go Your Own Way” flooring the brakes into a guitar crescendo hotter than Georgia asphalt. This is a stage built for Southern-fried summers, radio-a-blarin’ with some monster hits pacing its grounds. Besides “In Sleep” and “When I’m Alone”, there’s the Sheryl Crow-but-pissed brawler “Loosen the Knot” with its moshpit trigger chorus, “I wanna loosen up / Loosen up / Loosen the knot.” The lady’s not for turning, “Toughen up / Like It or not.” There’s a sense of authenticity in the words, atmosphere, that in less skilled hands would seem clichéd. When Lissie evokes “Mississippi moonchilds / Appalachian farmers / Death in a Florida swamp” on the elegant “Little Lovin'”, it feels more than porch swing pastiche.
“The end is coming darling and I’m bringing the news.” As well as yearning nostalgia, a darker streak cuts through Catching a Tiger. It’s an inevitability about the corruption of adulthood and city livin’, a sense of the fall. “The future don’t exist,” she confesses during lonesome campfire closer “This Much I Know”. But there’s a fighting defiance not to lower the sword and conform. “Martyrs never open doors,” she ponders, “Am I really all alone?”. This is freedom clinging onto faith (“Truth and love they could overcome”), braving the storm of emptiness and fakes. Like Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams”, it finds comfort through imagination and a candy coloured clown called the Sandman, “A city after dawn becomes a field of corn.” Determination bleeds through the tracks like a manifesto, “I gotta lotta lovin’ in my heart / I’m gonna get to heaven alright.” During Gothic folk lullaby “Look Away”, our narrator protests she “Won’t be found out” before cracking “I can’t feel nothing / Anyways / Anymore” and conceding “I will be found out.” No worse fate for tigers than to be caught, caged.
The twin peaks though are the two blubfests. When Lissie croons “Everywhere I Go”‘s chorus, I require two things: my security blanket and could someone please sit with me and give me a hug? “Danger will follow me / Everywhere I go / And angels will call on me / And take me, to, my, home.” It’s “Amazing Grace” in plaid. It’s moonshine gospel and, hallelujah, I’m a comin’ home. No, I’m not crying, it’s been raining on my face, etc. The other weepy is “Oh Mississippi”, basically the Smiths’ “Asleep” reincarnated as Southern hymn. The notion of Ol’ Man River witnessing mankind’s futility and bad fashion sense. “Now do your waters / Have room for one more?” It’d be depressing as hell if it wasn’t so darn purty. That voice, an angel choir, plaintive piano and a teardrop tambourine. “Please take my hand / I will go gently.” It’s almost too much, now can I get an “amen”?
Catching a Tiger isn’t a faultless journey though. Over 14 tracks, turbulence happens. The unmemorable “Needle Starts to Fall” is a tailchaser, whilst “Worried About” never lives up to its promising ‘Prince circa ’86’ beatbox foundations. Call me miserablist (“Miserablist!”), but the chirpier chapters sound comparatively trivial. “Cuckoo”‘s skippy sepia serenade is the realisation of the Corrs covering “Summer of ’69”, whilst “Stranger” is effectively Bobby Vee’s “Rubber Ball”. Cute but, sorry, I’ve packed my drama face.
I’ve not seen “rock ‘n’ roll future”, and neither has the Lynch, but we’ve both witnessed f’sure a new star in the sky tonight and one worth following. Lissie’s a tiger with a lion’s roar, a gifted songwriter with a kick to match Loretta Lynn or Natalie Maines. Maybe Lynch hears echoes of his ‘Lady in the Radiator’ swooning “In Heaven / Everything is fine” too. Whatever, Catching a Tiger serves a damn fine helping of tunes and, like Sailor Ripley’s snakeskin jacket, represents a symbol “of its owner’s individuality and belief in personal freedom”. Put simply, rockin’ good news.