The Naysayer, as a band, is mostly a vehicle for the talents of Texas singer/songwriter Anna Padgett. However, the fact that its other members include Cynthia Nelson and Tara Jane O'Neal, ex-of many different bands, currently of Retsin, has almost garnered more attention than Padgett's songwriting skills. The Naysayer's debut, Deathwhisker, while intriguing on some levels, failed to satisfy mainly due to a lack of hooks. On that record, Padgett's songwriting skills were still in their embryonic phase, and while far from bad, the record lacked the sophistication that marks many of the best songs on Heaven, Hell or Houston.
Although it retains much of the quirky, off-center nature that made Deathwhisker such an odd listen, Heaven, Hell or Houston finds Padgett in a much more self-assured mode. Her melodies are stronger, her writing is more incisive, and she seems much more willing to tell a story (even if it's a vague one) with her songs than ever before. While the influence of her collaborators Nelson and O'Neal is obvious, especially in little touches like the flute that runs through the sparse, mournful "Break Up", there's no way that you'd find a song as bratty and straightforward as "Things to Do" on a Retsin record. That song finds Padgett trying to convince herself, in a rather amusing fashion, that she's too busy to talk to someone: "I don't care what he said, I've got so many things to do / . . . So many things, I really don' t have time to talk to you". The song is lyrically plainspoken and even a little bit awkward, and while it never specifies who the person is or why she doesn't want to talk to him or her, the feeling of anxiousness that pervades the song is genuine.
Elsewhere, as on the record's opener, "Dead End Road", Padgett plays it straightforwardly melodic, with excellent results. The song is a simple, chiming pop song, whose refrain of "My pretty little dead-end road / They made you then they broke the mold" will stay with you for linger than you might expect.
Although most of the record is given over to slower, acoustic-based, drumless material, such as "Envy & Regret", "I Just Left Myself" and "Break Up", the songs never become tedious, thanks to Padgett's blossoming songwriting skills and Nelson and O'Neal's deft touches with backing instrumentation.
Oddly enough, I think that the best overall comparison I can make to The Naysayer at this phase in their development is to a more mournful, high 'n' lonesome version of Liz Phair. Padgett has the same sort of laconic, dry delivery that Phair perfected on her debut, Exile in Guyville, and she also uses a similar, almost monotonal approach to singing. However, while many of Phair's songs were about as subtle as a flying mallet, Padgett leaves much more open to interpretation (as in "Things to Do", where you may not know who she's talking about or why, but you understand the gut feeling that she's trying to convey). In this respect, Heaven, Hell or Houston, while a fairly simple and unassuming collection of songs on the surface, in the end, has a great deal more to offer than immediate gratification.