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Catie Curtis: Dreaming in Romantic Languages

Jason MacNeil

Catie Curtis

Dreaming in Romantic Languages

Label: Vanguard
US Release Date: 2004-03-16
UK Release Date: 2004-03-15

Catie Curtis is one of a dozen roots singer/songwriters that gracefully enters the pop-rock mold without embarrassing herself or her fans. Working for over 15 years now, the Boston performer is making another first of sorts -- her first album with her new label Vanguard. With all of the right people behind and in front of the mic and amps, Curtis has made sure she isn't about to fail on this, her fifth album. And while the title might evoke images of lights dimming and cuddling up to your better half, the songs ring true in an extremely earthy and organic way. And that sound is what rings this album in. "Saint Lucy" has Curtis resembling a Southern singer, but having just as much in common with Dar Williams or Patty Larkin. All the alt.country instrumentation is there -- the mandolin, an organ that veers in and out, and a horde of toe-tapping backbeats that keep it all together. Straddling folk and pop shouldn't sound this easy, but Curtis approaches it with the ease of riding a tricycle with training wheels. She also avoids that funky folk method that often butchers a song's original intent.

The soul on "Deliver Me" is another strength she plays into -- heartfelt without moving into a series of vocal theatrics. Listening to it, you can see her on a stool with acoustic guitar in hand before a fuller acoustic sound accompanies her on the remainder. "All the angels that I love, they don't hang out above", she delivers with a fragile yet Appalachian-like freedom. Kind of like Emmylou Harris three or four times removed. "Hold On" is more of a breather and suffers as a result. Not to mention that the manufactured, David Gray-ish backbeat doesn't mesh with the roots feel the song has. It's as if she's changing the song to find what will make it take off, but it rarely if ever does. Vocally, it's very good, but there is little to get your knickers in a knot over. "The Night", a cover of late Morphine frontman Mark Sandman's tune, is dark and the kind of thing people like Sarah McLachlan drool over. Curtis is more than capable of breathing new life into this tune with grace. Only talking the lyrics during the bridge does cause it to lose some of its substance, however.

Generally speaking, Curtis is comfortable giving one adult contemporary gem after another, including "It's the Way You Are", which draws favorable comparisons to Natalie Merchant, albeit a pinch slicker. When she opts for a darker, twang-ish sound on "The Trouble You Bring", she seems to be taught by Melissa Etheridge circa Breakdown. The funky style she gives off doesn't mesh with the album as a whole, but should be commended for her branching out just a bit more than usual. It also takes off after the chorus -- a vast and wide-open approach that she lets loose slightly on while her supporting cast gets to jam out on guitar and organ. Curtis has a bit of the South in her despite being a Nor'easter. This is evident on the softer, romantic "Cross over to Me", which touches the right spots at just the right times. Her harmonies are golden in this track, again recalling Mrs. McLachlan.

Kudos also should go to producer Trina Shoemaker, who has worked with Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris. Getting the best out of Curtis time and time again, she has her fingers all over "Life Goes On", which contains that ambient, Daniel Lanois-like sparseness used to lovable results. A blend of gospel with Americana, Curtis sounds her most vulnerable on this song and the additional instruments don't distract from that. "I've seen the angels cry in rivers over what man will do to man / And I have seen vengeance celebrated like they just don't understand", she sings a la Lucinda Williams. The highlight of the album, if not her career! "Doctor" is also another sleeper pick, with Curtis using the traditional folk style to talk about universal messages. And if you can't figure it out by the time you hear "Dark Weather", you're looking and listening to a very solid performer. Lap it up.

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