Heather Duby's sophomore album is called Come across the River, but it feels as if the narrator in this dark, atmospheric collection of 10 diverse yet consistently downcast songs would prefer to stay on her own side of the river, thank you very much.
No, seriously, Heather, come across! That's your album title, after all!
"To rely on anyone is just like sinking", she'd emote softly, accompanied by organic guitar, drums, and bass this time after an electronic outing with the band Elemental and the loops of 1999 SubPop debut Post to Wire. Including that miserable sentiment, first track "Make Me Some Insomnia" sets the dreamlike, sad-eyed mood of the album with downcast melodies and ominous strings. It's like Beth Orton without the electronica, Tori Amos with less whimsy, both of the above with more pathos.
I promise, Heather! You won't sink. I'll catch you.
"If you ever have changed your mind / You know it's better to stay resigned", she'd reply, as she does in the album's strongest song, the beautifully detached "The Rare Vavoom". The "vavoom," one suspects, is the true love seen in the movies; indeed, the music contains echoes of Broadway musicals, with softly brushed percussion, tinkling pianos, and sophisticated horns. Duby's narrator doesn't believe in this "vavoom" and sees no point in leaving a perfectly mediocre relationship in search of it.
Well, if you won't cross the river, I don't know what else I can do.
"Now I can see that you're lost to me", she sings in the slow, aching "Providence". "I'm still not coming to / You can't make me listen", she adds in the uptempo, pop-flavored "Three Miles". Complex melodies take shape from song to song, but the pain is omnipresent. "Convince me it's all for the best" -- "Providence" again -- "Convince me it's all my mistake", she continues.
As misery goes, Duby's is alternately blessed and cursed: She "can see" what she's lost. She knows what she's missing. Yet she chooses to stay on that same side of the river, convinced that what's going on over here is equally bleak. And she might well be right.
So it goes: Continually invited to cross into something more optimistic, Duby continually says "convince me", and leaves her situation always on the verge of becoming something else, if only anything were worthwhile. "I hate to leave it sitting this way", she sings in "Auto Immune", a Tin Pan Alley-flavored bit of gloom that evokes Rufus Wainwright.
Heather, if you hate to leave things sitting there, then stand up and take a leap! Come across the river! We're here for you. And why did you say "Between you and I" in the chorus? Did you really need to resort to bad grammar just to find a rhyme for the word "why"?
An echoey, synth-laden epilogue to the album, the melodic "Golden Syrup" brings to mind Elliott Smith in its crestfallen elegance. But Duby's point is clear: "Too-de-loo-de-loo, my friend / I belong here more than I could ever know".
Painting a picture of a future where "shadows are gone", Duby doesn't seem to hold much hope. But it's not too much to hope that the well-crafted Come Across the River will find an audience. Catchy and evocative as it is irrepressibly sad, Duby's latest will summon like-minded listeners to join her side of the river -- if they don't choose to drown themselves in despair first.