If you can find a better opening song anywhere, then I'll eat the hat of your choice.
This review recycles.
At the end of 2006, I rated Amy LaVere's debut album This World Is Not My Home as the 11th best country record of the year, and described it as an impressive collection of quirky and cinematic songs that brings together elements of blues, jazz and country into an often dark but always intriguing work. LaVere was, I said, a little bit Jolie Holland -- but more indie and less precious -- and a little bit Kasey Chambers -- but less Australian.
Well, plus ça change and all that surrender monkey nonsense.
Anchors & Anvils continues where This World Is Not My Home left off. The production may be a little more subtle and sophisticated, but the songs remain pretty much the same. Here a little pedal steel. There a classic country waltz. And over in the corner, a healthy dash of syncopated gothic sorrow. Add a couple of thick cut slices of something I believe we have to call "Memphis funk", and you've pretty much got Amy Lavere's second album right there.
Taken as a whole, Anchors & Anvils is a little less wonderful than its predecessor -- some of the songs simply lack the quality she deserves, but it's still far more compelling than fully 99% of the music that will be released during 2007. And if you can find a better opening song anywhere this year than the magnificent and macabre "Killing Him", then I'll eat the hat of your choice.
She gave him everything that she had
Changed anything he said was bad
Love weighed on her heart like marble stone
A flash of the knife and he was gone
He said he would give her the sun and the moon
Now all she is this eight-by-eight room
-- "Killing Him"
Soft and brooding, built upon a trance-like repetition and underpinned by LaVere's own melodramatic stand-up bass and Bob Furgo's gypsy violin, "Killing Him" tells the story of a woman compelled to murder by her passionate love for an unfaithful man. "She’d have to kill him to make him stay", but "Killing him didn't make the love go away".
Listening to Amy LaVere, I'm frequently put in mind of Lucinda Williams. Now LaVere sounds nothing like Williams. Vocally, she's more of a cross between Jolie Holland and Hope Sandoval. But her phrasing is so deftly conversational, so assuredly natural, and so very intimate that I can almost hear Lucinda singing LaVere's songs. Or, indeed, vice versa.
To date, however, Amy LaVere has resisted the temptation to cover "Greenville" or "Pineola". Fortunately, however, she has chosen to bolster material provided by her regular contributors with three excellent cover versions.
The second song on Anchors & Anvils is "Tennessee Valentine", a classic country waltz co-written by David Schnaufer and Rachel Dennision. Schnaufer, recently deceased, was something like the Clapton of the Appalachian dulcimer and Dennison, I believe, is the sister of Dolly Parton who starred in the TV series 9 To 5. Of course, this could be a totally different Rachel Dennison, but let's not let that spoil the image. Because LaVere's rendition, simple and direct, yet wistful and seductively languid, certainly deserves a slice of country-great-by-association hype.
Following hot on the heels of "Tennessee Valentine" comes "That Beat", a cover of a "hidden gem" from Carla Thomas, the Queen of Memphis Soul. Where Thomas emoted and wailed, LaVere is relaxed yet equally effective, and the enthralling 1930s violin of Bob Furgo is a more than adequate replacment for the signature Stax sounds of the original.
The next six songs, two more from LaVere and two each from collaborators Paul Taylor and Kristi Witt, all fail to match the quality of the first three. They're not terrible songs, of course. Just not entirely right. The excellence of the musicians, the production, and LaVere's performances are simply let down by occasionally clumsy lyrics or by an idea that did not translate. Nonetheless Taylor's "Pointless Drinking" still offers marvellous moments of exhausted relection, LaVere's own "Cupid's Arrow" combines the charm of This World Is Not My Home's "Last Night" with the nonsense of an "Iko Iko", and Witt's "Washing Machine" (the worst song here by some way) still allows LaVere to recall, with not word of a lie, Robert Plant on Led Zeppelin's "Sick Again".
Witt's second contribution to Anchors & Anvils is "Time is a Train". Half spook, half twang, it's immeasurably better than "Washing Machine", but makes the fatal mistake of taking its lead from U2's "Zoo Station" rather than remembering that a much greater man had already explained that time, actually, was a jet plane. And yet, the last song on Anchors & Anvils is Amy LaVere's take on Bob "Time is a jet plane" Dylan's "I'll Remember You". Stripping away the original rock gospel arrangement and eliminating the intrusive backing singers, LaVere identifies and isolates the sweetly wistful and lovelorn pop at the heart of Dylan's song. Truthfully, her performance flatters the original, and how many performers can you say that about?
So, not a bad second album by any means. But I expect greater things from Amy LaVere in the future.