With even auto racing reluctantly opening up to women, rock music is about as crotch-centric as anything in this country can be. Every few years now, there is a Rolling Stone cover story or New York Times Arts and Leisure piece about the rise of “Women in Rock”, but it’s usually a head fake. For every Liz Phair who emerges, there’s a lead singer for The Darkness wearing a cucumber-aided unitard.
In 1996, Tracy Bonham was a Woman in Rock, storming MTV with a power-chord-heavy single, “Mother, Mother”, and a blues-swagger voice. And why not? She grew up close enough to Seattle (Eugene, OR) and at the right time to seem, maybe, like a Courtney Love without the peroxide job and dysfunctional existence. But, two albums and several incredible side-projects later, it’s pretty clear that Ms. Bonham is something other than a mere Woman in Rock. She’s, um… a musician.
Blink the Brightest is the work of a full-service indie-pop singer-songwriter who knows exactly what she is about. Eschewing the temptation to fulfill older expectations by “rocking”, this collection of songs is instrumentally lush, melodically rich and emotionally complex. The back-story on Tracy from the start was that she was “a classically-trained violinist!” Prior to this album it seemed mostly like good copy. Here, the songs sound positively orchestrated because Ms. Bonham and her co-producer Greg Collins have used the full array of studio possibilities to serve they songs themselves — Tracy’s violin, yes, but also vintage keyboards (pump organ anyone?), slide guitar and vibes, limited studio processing on the drums, and background vocals that wink toward Brian Wilson.
Here is the main thing: these are terrific songs. Something like “Whether You Fall”, which is essentially just Tracy at the piano, contains enough material for three songs: a hooky hummed intro/outro, a soulful verse that manages to combine rich chords with a soul melody, then a chorus that reaches into her soprano range to stick in your head. “D.U.M.B.O. Sun” is a Sheryl Crow song that is twice as hip and twice as funky as Ms. Crow will ever be — “There was a man in a yellow thong / He was doing his yoga and doing it wrong / Down under the bridge for all to see / He got off, he got off, he got off, he got off.” Not to mention the Truman Capote reference.
This album is a simple matter of promise fulfilled rather than a case of a young rocker “maturing” in some bogus way. Ms. Bonham has always been the creative, eclectic artist that Blink so brilliantly displays. She studied voice at Berklee but left, learning guitar and entering the Boston independent music scene. She lives in both LA and Brooklyn. She’s been compared to rockers like Love, but she sings with the genre-busting bluegrass-jazz group The Wayfaring Strangers and toured last year with The Blue Man Group. In short, this new disc is the first thing she’s done that reflects the full spectrum of what Bonham is about.
The next-to-last track on Blink the Brightest sums it up nicely: “I’m tough as nails / I’m made of stone, don’t you know / I don’t want you to see me wilting like a flower.” This is an album that’s hard and soft, showing rocking strength and wistful vulnerability in almost every song. It’s fancy or fussy in spots but direct and thumping in others, depending on what’s needed, with the connection being Ms. Bonham’s voice — never fussy or cute, soulful but not false or showing off, graceful but not studied. There are moments when the package sounds as perfectly prepared as something by Shawn Colvin but just as many where the better comparison is to an artist as obscure as Mirah. And that is why Blink succeeds so brilliantly — it glides between “indie” and “industry”, avoiding a roots-rock Americana sound while also floating above the pop fray. When you listen to it, it seems like Tracy’s record. Or maybe yours.
After fishing around for the right summarizing comparison — to mid-career Elvis Costello? or to the recent polished songwriting of Juliana Hatfield? — I found myself listening to an “oldies” station that favors Paul Simon records from the 1970s. And that is what Blink the Brightest reminds me of most. Personal but not confessional. Melodic but never sing-songy. Densely arranged but never overproduced. And with a gentle rock of gospel and folk music without ever putting on the air of rustic authenticity. Has Tracy Bonham produced a classic like There Goes Rhymin’ Simon or Still Crazy After All These Years? Comparisons, we all know, are odious. Great albums, on the other hand, are glorious.