Merrie Amsterburg,
Little Steps
(Rounder/Zoe, 2000)

Armed with an eclectic array of instruments, mystical lyrics and a hauntingly sweet voice, Merrie Amsterburg takes giant strides that belie the title of her new CD, Little Steps.

From the first tentative synth-like rhythms of the title track, Amsterburg establishes a sultry mood that immediately captures the listener's ear with its catchy Mediterranean-influenced chorus. Amsterburg then segues into "Design," a folk-rock tune. Despite its more traditional sound, the song is another showcase for Amsterburg's strong song-writing ability.

"My Romeo" and "Opal Moon" extend the Eastern ambiance, but Amsterburg travels to the Caribbean on the jazzy "Undertow." Like its title, the song is full of mellow acoustic sounds that almost sneak up on the listener, creating a pleasing blend of different rhythms.

Many of the sounds on this CD seem a mish-mash of musical influences, yet Amsterburg's voice and arrangements hold the key to the unity of Little Steps. While "State Highway 16" works as a slow country ballad and "Radio" has the makings of a mainstream pop hit, Amsterburg's voice is enough to keep them from sounding commonplace. Amsterburg possesses a high-pitched, almost "little girl" voice, yet this voice is remarkably capable of capturing the more mature wit and adult observations of Amsterburg's lyrics. The combination results in a surprising blend of irony and emotion; nowhere is this blend more obvious than on "Atmosphere," one of the best tracks on the CD.

Yet "obvious" is not a word to be used frequently when describing Amsterburg's music. Understated, subtle, even sparse, is more appropriate here. There's nothing flashy or overdone about this CD. For example, the final song, "Sheltering," (in my opinion, the highlight of the CD) uses nothing more than the traditional singer-songwriter staples -- a good voice and an acoustic guitar. Yet for all its simplicity, it evokes more emotion and power than many of the "filled-out" songs on the CD. And that's saying a lot.

Backed by Paul Bryan on bass, Peter Linton on guitars and John Sands on drums/percussion, Amsterburg proves that she's off and running with Little Steps. This is one artist you'll definitely want to catch.

[ by Audrey M. Clark ]

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