Be wary of short people. The little among us are the kind to pick a fight and then consider it fair to play dirty because they are at a height disadvantage. The diminutive folk have a deep, nasty streak that they try to keep hidden, but then the shorties gleefully let it out without provocation at the drop of a hat. I should know. I’m short: only five-feet-five-inches tall and shrinking as I get older. And Amy LaVere looks petite to me. She stretches to reach the strings on the Upright Bass that she plucks with unusual vigor. She sings with a lusty voice that’s part bully and part innocent victim — playing both roles at the same time. This makes everything more complicated as the perspective continually changes. Maybe as the narrator she means what she’s saying. Maybe she doesn’t.
The Memphis singer-songwriter does her musical cooking, Southern style. Stranger Me is barbecue and fried catfish, with a tangy sauce and coleslaw. LaVere captures the bizarre spirit of the town’s past, with the help of producer Craig Silvey. The band’s arrangements evoke the music of the black and white era (both in terms of movies and race) that has an edge of danger mixed with cheap sex. Honkin’ horns, a funky Farfisa organ, big and hollow acoustic guitar sounds, cheesy string arrangements and such all surround LaVere’s voice. Her vocals are always the center of attention.
So when LaVere sweetly sings about walking hand in hand along the river with her boyfriend and watching the sunset, we know something is fishy. Sure enough, by the second verse of “Red Banks”, the narrator’s boyfriend threatens to kill her if he finds out she has been fooling around. Next thing we learn is that the girl has a stone in her hand and her boyfriend has made a hole into the river — but she swears that she hasn’t killed him. Does she have multiple personality disorder? Is she schizophrenic? The knowing smile in the increasingly harsh voice suggests she knew what she was doing right from the beginning and that maybe it was her plan to murder him from the start. Like I said, short people are mean.
Or there’s the grudging declaration that begins the album, “Damn Love Song”, in which the narrator complainingly offers her affection over waves of guitar noise and a pounding dream beat. The pulsating rhythms suggest an animal attraction, but romantic love? This implies submission and neither person in this relationship is going to get down on their knees. They are much more likely to fistfight. The narrator sings the love song because she has to in the sense that she’s under the thumb of the other person, but she resents it and looks forward to the day she can exert power. Little folk do not like to be squashed and will seek their revenge.
LaVere wrote the majority of songs on the album, but she covers some songs by other artists including Captain Beefhart’s “Candle Mambo”. She sings it straight as the accompaniment veers into the weirdness. The lyrics make no sense. This is dada from rock’s psychedelic era. Each line may convey something, but together they add up to what? LaVere lets her voice meld into the instrumentation until the sounds are just another part of the sound. It’s an odd inclusion, but reveals LaVere’s willingness to experiment. After all, this album is called Stranger Me for a reason. The narrator of the title song has her feet all tangled up in the Wisteria. LaVere has her feet on more ephemeral ground where she’s just as likely to trip, but she never falls. Perhaps that’s because she’s already so close to the ground.