The X frontwoman has returned with another addition to her catalogue of breezy folk albums, which sound a lot like the stuff that punk rock was supposed to hate. (There's no need to.)
On the back cover and insert of The Excitement of Maybe, Exene Cervenka poses next to a tree, acoustic guitar in hand. Her dignified openness in these pictures couldn't help but remind me of another late-career album with a very similar pose in its packaging: Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose, the album which helped "bring back" that country star to a wider (or at least "hipper") audience. While the aesthetic similarities end there (Lynn was over 70 by the time of Van Lear Rose; Cervenka is still sitting comfortably in her 50s), the correlation is an interesting one. The aforementioned Loretta album arrived at a time when "classic" country singing was being amalgamated into other forms -- garage rock, for instance -- and hence, the new album accentuated those "classic" qualities whilst updating them into the decadent pleasures of 2000s rock. The Excitement of Maybe has arrived amidst a similar fluctuation in the ranks of male-female punk acts, many of whom attempt literate lyrics about love equating chaos, chaos equating love...that stuff. So, what does this album sound like? Nothing like any of that.
Cervenka, as you may know, is one of the founding members of the great LA punk band X. (Obtain their first three albums post-haste, assuming you haven't already.) And yet, her past credentials hardly matter at this point; Cervenka has spent the last couple of decades as a clear-throated folk singer -- "alt-country", if you'd prefer -- and the only thing that's been held over from her '80s days is her hair, worn ragged and red in a style that I hope she never gets rid of. (It's like her own personalized way of saying "I was there.") So it's in this sense that The Excitement of Maybe won't come as a shock to anyone familiar with solo Cervenka, and yet will come as a hell of a shock to anyone familiar with X and just coming around to her work now.
The opener, "Already in Love", sets the vibe straight-off, an aggressively sunny track with acoustic guitar strumming that vaguely recalls a more rhythmically smoothed-out version of Joni Mitchell on "Big Yellow Taxi". This is far from "Johny Hit and Run Paulene" territory, to be sure, and yet the song still sums up the best elements of the album: zesty horns harmonizing without being overused; light twangs of electric guitar coloring the edges; lyrics which are clever and mildly self-reflexive without being downbeat. "It's late, it always is" are the album's first lines, and Cervenka follows them with "Girl groups and drugs / It's only Tuesday night, but I'm already in love". You might suspect that words like that would be sung with a solemnity or a placid melody -- not so. Quite the opposite, in fact, and there's a particular sort of acidic breeziness to Cervenka's singing here and elsewhere; the dusty drums and light horn fills allow her to ease that voice upward in pitch. There's a subtly effective moment in that opening track where she stretches her voice gently up the register for the first time -- just a little -- and reveals an endearing clarity that another singer might have needlessly shoved in your face.
The problem is that The Excitement of Maybe continues to repeat these same tactics, to lesser and lesser avail as it plays on. Like most punks-turned-folkies, Cervenka's tune-carrying ability is merely competent...but that hardly matters here. It's the arrangements of these songs that weigh the record down. They're generally spare - mostly just guitar, drums, bass, piano, and occasional pedal steel and fiddle. But their success comes only in fits and starts, and for every little detail that works, there's another that doesn't. For instance, where half-hidden plinks of electric guitar provide good harmonics in "Alone in Arizona", the same song features strings that sound curiously washed-out -- disappointing, considering the song has a slightly more epic emotional bent than the others. And yet a few tracks later, on "Half Past Forever", those strings are the most interesting part (there's a tinge of mid-East drone in them) while it's the more conventional "rock" instruments that sound hackneyed.
Props must be given to Cervenka, though, for doing something that X were always good at: not overstaying their welcome. Where many solo songwriters -- especially ones with a legendary band in their history -- often try to stretch out flimsy voice-and-guitar material for several minutes, Cervenka keeps her songs brisk and (relatively) light on their feet. Some of the album's most effective moments are these lighter bits, in fact; "Falling", a two-minute ditty that follows "Alone in Arizona", is surprisingly charming in the purity of the singing and the lapping vocal harmonies. There's a good deal of ego that goes around with songwriters these days, which often affects the way they try to bolster their own albums with unworthy material. Luckily, Cervenka is smart enough to keep her record focused in tone and sentiment -- admirable, even despite the marginal quality of the songwriting.
This focus, however, can be constricting, and this is, in fact, the most glaring flaw of The Excitement of Maybe: rote lyrics. Simply put, there's a lack of assertiveness to these songs that renders them not bad, but forgettable. Even in the standout tracks like the aforementioned "Alone in Arizona", there's a sense of disappointment that Cervenka chooses to repeat stock lines instead of delve deeper into character details. "My heart's in California, I'm alone in Arizona", she sings effectively (holding that last syllable with a pinch of quavering vibrato), and it's an effectively melancholic moment on a reasonably friendly-sounding album. But while Cervenka could have explored the strange sense of distance that could exist in someone's mind between states and romance, she chooses instead to go for easy lines ("The shades are drawn / I'm losing you"). Oddly enough, her best lines are ones which you might not even catch if not for that clearness of vocal timbre ("You know how real reality gets early in the morning").
There are hints on The Excitement of Maybe of a wistful American travelogue of some kind -- she mentions being lonely in Arizona and the dirty snow in Oklahoma (in different songs). This can be interesting to hear, as Cervenka's past record of California decadence now has room to breathe, especially in her voice. Some may draw up similarities between the timbre of that voice and that of one Neko Case: both have singing tones that seem hard to pin down to a specific locale, ones that can turn reflective or somber when appropriate.
It therefore seems fitting that Cervenka closes the album with a song called "Love and Haight", which threatens to cap it all off as a foreboding creeper until bright acoustic guitar strums peek through. With that title, you might expect the song to reference California in a bleak way (much the way that Sly Stone did 40 years earlier in his song of the same title). And yet, it's the one track that seems wholly unpredictable in terms of where it will go or what kind of song it will turn into -- there's a gradual crescendo that nevertheless doesn't come to the head that you think it will.
The Excitement of Maybe (a great title) may give minimal bursts of pleasure to those who are easily-accepting of relaxed folk music (sorry: "alt-country"), or to those who are curious about where Cervenka has gone from her days in X (if they aren't already). And I must admit that I enjoyed my initial spin of the album in the latter sense: it was refreshing to hear her voice of such little artifice -- even despite the artifice of most of the songwriting. The problem is that the album has no replay value, its verse sounding flimsy against such a standard sense of acoustics and arrangement. I firmly believe that Cervenka has her best solo work ahead of her, and that The Excitement of Maybe is merely a slight -- yet comfortable and welcome -- step on that path. After all, she's got almost 25 years before she reaches Loretta's age today. She can do it -- she's earned it.