Over the past fifteen years, chances are you’ve heard Catie Curtis and never even known it. Her music has appeared on a slew of TV shows — Dawson’s Creek, Grey’s Anatomy, and the like. She also performed at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, although her performance didn’t quite generate the same kind of buzz as Bruce Springsteen’s. Curtis’s music is appropriately unassuming for the type of career she’s had: pleasant, pretty, a little gritty, a little world-weary, like a female answer to guys like Ryan Adams and Ray LaMontagne.
On her new album, Stretch Limousine on Fire, Adams may be the closest analog, since Curtis deals in Adams’s proclivity for folk-country balladry and confessional songwriting. But like much of Adams’s work, Stretch Limousine on Fire doesn’t always land. The overriding premise here is the life you get to enjoy after the long road. The newly-married Curtis justifiably sings a lot about being married, with songs called “I Do” and “Wedding Band”. But as everyone knows, it’s a lot harder to write about being happy than it is to write about being sad or angry or alone, especially when marriage comes into the picture. For instance, Springsteen’s immediate post-marriage output, Lucky Town and Human Touch, is inarguably the weakest work of his 40-year career. Likewise, despite Curtis’ affability and fine voice, many of her ideas fall flat here.
The result is an album that is by no means bad — just kind of dull, with hills and dips instead of peaks and valleys. Album opener “Let It Last” has the most fruitful perspective on living the good life: “I know it can’t last / But let it last a little longer.” The song probably hews closest to the kind of song you wish Curtis had filled the album with. It’s bittersweet, nuanced, and heartfelt, with a message that’s grown up and a little complicated. That kind of subtlety gets lost in Curtis’s wedding songs, which maintain that “looks like we made it” feeling but ditch the tension and keen observation.
Curtis smartly focuses pretty heavily on that idea of transience throughout the album, putting little chestnuts like “There ain’t a thing under the sun that will not shake” and “Finally we are meant to go / Across the river wide / Someday I’ll fly to the other side” at the centers of many of her songs. But the effectiveness of lines like these is tempered by some tired clunkers: “Shadowbird” is full of them, especially “The beautiful late afternoon horizon glows”, and the title line of “Highway del Sol” is just hard to spit out. The worst offender might be the forced “worry/hurry” rhyme in “Another Day on Earth”. This kind of music is wordy stuff, and if the tunes are a little ho-hum, the words need to be whip-smart to compensate.
Stretch Limousine on Fire fits into a long timeline of contemporary folk-rock — this is Curtis’s eleventh album, and she’s got Lisa Loeb and Mary Chapin Carpenter singing backup — and if you dig any of the people involved, chances are you’ll get something out of the album. It’s just a bummer that there’s not more to recommend it past its pedigree. It’s an album from the heart, and Curtis certainly has plenty of heart to spare, don’t be surprised if you’re halfway through and you forget what the last song was.