They say misery loves company. Not sure if that’s true, but the characters who inhabit Courtney Marie Andrews’ latest release live miserable lives by conventional standards but find what happiness they can in the company of others. As Andrews notes, it takes love to make a house a home, not the amenities one finds in the real estate ads. That may be a cliché, but it’s still true. Andrews’ talents as a singer-songwriter lie in her ability to bring the basic facts of life into an artistic perspective so that one finds the beauty in our common humanity. Her empathy for others comes from her heart and mind.
Most tracks are straight-forward in their meaning. On the title cut that opens the disc, Andrews sets the theme as she sings about the essential goodness of a friend who may be facing hard times. True love and happiness come free, she reminds her friend. Don’t let life’s troubles grind you down. Andrew sings in a sweet voice and producer Mark Howard lets the notes ring in the air like that of a church choir. He recorded the album in a rented house in Los Angeles that he, Andrews, and the band (Dillon Warnek, guitar; (Daniel Walker, Charles Wicklander, keyboards; Alex Sabel, bass, and William Mapp, drums) lived in for eight days. According to Andrews, “a lot of the record is either the first take or we did just one overdub.” The band set up in a circle, watching each other across the room as they played each song live.
On the other song with the word “kindness” in the title (“Kindness of Strangers”), Andrews recalls the last line of Blanche DuBois in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as she’s led to an institution, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” DuBois mental breakdown was caused in large part by her reduced circumstances after her husband’s death. Andrews’ honeyed tones and the band’s lively country rock beat suggest that they can offer the song’s characters and listeners comfort. Others may have hurt you. Life circumstances may have beat you down and scarred you for life. But Andrews reminds us by example that people can also lift you up. Her music provides solace.
The central motif that runs through the album is reminiscent of DuBois’ situation in that economic struggles can cause one to suffer mentally and emotionally, as well as financially. That is true on a personal level for her characters as well as for cities and country. On “Two Cold Nights in Buffalo” she complains about the changes in community life: “What happened to the middle-class mom-and-pop five-and-dimes? / Soon they’ll be knocking it all down to build that high rise.” On “Border”, a Mexican migrant crossed the border looking for work and will settle for any job with a paycheck, no matter how hard or dangerous. The narrators of both tracks realize their problems may not be of their own making, but suffer the consequences nevertheless and internalize them.
However, when Andrews sings about spousal neglect on “I’ve Hurt Worse”, the realization of the situation emerges slowly. The narrator gently croons to a soft accompaniment about how she “likes” her mate even though he doesn’t hold the door for her, lies to her face, and doesn’t always come home at night. What on the surface sounds like a straight-forward love song turns into a self-deprecating complaint. The man may be a bastard, but at least he doesn’t hit her (which she implies has been the case with former lovers). Andrews’ use of the word “like” rather than “love” subtly acknowledges the pain and creates compassion instead of loathing for the narrator who puts up with such an insensitive cad as well as for the scoundrel. They are a matched pair. The tone may be sarcastic but the song’s we get what we deserve ethos comes off as very human. It’s easy to condemn a woman who puts up with abuse, but it is much more difficult to identify with her and understand why she would put up with it.
Andrews’ ability to write seemingly simple songs that contain deep levels of ambiguity combined with her superb vocal talents make her a special artist. She suggests compassion as the alternative to cynicism in dealing with the modern world. Love may not be the answer, but kindness may be enough.