Amy Ray is from the Indigo Girls. We should just get that statement out of the way immediately. Now, read on. Because we have to be honest here. If you’re reading this web site for music reviews, chances are very good that you care about music more than the average person. And if you are, indeed, said person then chances are also that, when pressed for what you listen to, you may list the Beatles and Joni Mitchell, LCD Soundsystem and Basement Jaxx, Spoon and Sharon Jones. But you will not list the Indigo Girls. Not because they’re bad, because they’re not. Not because they have never written a great song, because they have. Several, in fact, even many. The reason you won’t list them has something to do with these three qualities: sameness, their rabid fan base, and politics.
Over the course of two decades, the Indigo Girls have released a plethora of records that have never veered far from their, well, Indigo Girls sound. Their fanbase is devoted, and that’s fine, but so was Phish’s and the Grateful Dead’s and even Ned’s Atomic Dustbin’s legion. It’s the exteme devotion that leaves the rest of us wary. The kind that says that these people’s CD collection may exist largely of one band. Finally, there’s the politics. It’s just plain hard to consider Native American (or, insert group) rights in a song. Most of us don’t feel inspired, or properly empathetic (at least through song) to do anything after four minutes of didacticism and it’s got to be under three percent of the time that the song is actually any good (with two of that three percent belonging to the Gang of Four).
Here is your direct order: do not dismiss Amy Ray’s Prom based on her other band. Because you will be missing out on something special.
Prom is straight-up rock and roll. And it is rock and roll at its best. It charges forward, it teases, it orchestrates grand movements, and it finds the truth in three-chord progressions. With Amy Ray’s first solo outing, 2001’s Stag, you could practically hear critics’ jaws dropping in their reviews. No one expected such unleashed power from her. It was startling, and unnerving enough to cause everyone to sit still and listen. With Prom, she improves, using artistry to shape the demons that seemed to come out of her with Stag. This time around, we get a record from beginning to end, going beyond the collection of good-to-great songs that comprised her first solo release.
The press kit claims that Prom “explores the dance between gender and sexuality, man and woman, youth and adulthood, authority and rebellion”. Although press kits are generally mildly informative at best, and scrap paper at worst, there really is no better introduction to this group of songs than the above quote. Amy Ray captures moments gloriously with her vignettes. With few words, entire scenes come alive. The opener, “Put It Out For Good”, begins with:
I hear the rock show winding down at the high school
Kids out on the sidewalk, waiting for a ride
All the punks and the queers and the freaks and the smokers
Feel like they’ll be waiting for the rest of their lives
Sung with an earnestness present in the best of the bar and punk bands, “Put It Out For Good” rewrites youth from the confidence of adulthood without ever pandering. Similarly, on songs such as “Covered For You” and “Pennies on the Track”, Ray delves into sentimentality that celebrates today, not the kind that despairs for the past. Backed by punk and garage rock luminaries (Jody Bleyle, Donna Dresch, Kate Schellenbach, and the Birmingham band Nineteen Forty-Five) and produced with precision by David Barbe, Amy Ray shines with her release of vitriol and emotion.
So, summer is around the corner and Amy Ray has arrived with the gift of Prom. If you, dear reader, have made it to this point in the review, I hope you grab a Raincoats and a Clash CD, put on your sunglasses, and head down to your favorite record store to lay some money down for this not-so-surprisingly great release. It will go beyond impressing you; it will enthrall you.