Rachel Bissex,
Between the Broken Lines
(One Take, 2001)

It's easy to give this CD a quick listen and dismiss it. Yes, Rachel Bissex is yet another singer-songwriter from New England (Vermont, to be specific). No, her compositions don't really stick to the same style, and her voice is as gentle as a light spring rain. It's simple to write her off as another wanna-be and move on. I almost did. Then I started really listening to the lyrics. There is a theme here, stated rather obviously in the album's title. The subjects of the songs are all just a bit off, just a bit broken -- living perhaps, between the broken lines.

"Suki dropped the letter into the mailbox with no return address/she backed away from what she'd done, smiled at the emptiness," Bissex sings on "Starting Over," the opening track. Suki proceeds to drive "for hours for days for weeks." Has she left a husband? There's a big, yet easily overlooked, clue in what otherwise sounds like a light song about leaving. It's just a fragment of a line: "as big as her vacant womb." Perhaps Suki feels just a bit broken. It's subtle, yet it raises a question in what might otherwise seem a simple, humorous number.

She comes down from that light mood on her second number, "Flying." That one is a slow ballad evocative of both the general singer-songwriter genre and the pop ballads found on radio dials around the world. Singing merely with Brad Hatfield's piano and strings behind her, Bissex' gentle voice discusses how the world can be a "cacophony, a symphony," and a "sweet harmony" at the same time and how "every now and then it is a perfect world." For a moment, Julie Gold's "From a Distance" comes to mind, but Bissex doesn't bother with bold choruses; the song remains gentle to the end, and it easily segues into the slow, jazzy feel (there's even a valve trombone) of "Hurricane Desire."

Most of the songs do segue well. "Hurricane Desire" leads to the dreamlike reggae feel of "Hey Marianne." Dreamlike seems to be the album's overall mood, whether she's singing songs or reciting lines. Bissex becomes a poetry slammer in an amusing beat mood (with only trumpet, drums and bass accompanying her) on "Sean Connery Looks" and jumps between speaking and singing on the more modern-sounding "Gravity's Gone." While Bissex probably makes the best use of brass instruments among singer-songwriters in her arrangements, "Drive All Night" has an organ that attempts to revive the beat feel again. It's not even remotely from the time period; I don't think Gene Shay and Michaela Majoun were broadcasting then ("I got Philly on the radio, Gene Shay and Michaela Majoun), but the finger snapping and the organ helps create the mood.

The songs on Between the Broken Lines definitely are diverse. While Bissex clearly is ensconced in the singer-songwriter category, she seems to be working on diversifying her abilities within that framework. Co-written with Tom Prasada-Rao, "One Another" is a slow ballad featuring Prasada-Rao's guitar and backing vocals. "Down" has a slightly Spanish tinge; the new-agey "For Andy," written when the man was dying, features Bissex' dulcimer; and the live, a cappella "Oh Jackson" (with Greg Greenway, and Kim and Reggie Harris joining on backing vocals), is an older '60s-style protest march.

This album isn't a bundle of hits. Instead, it has near misses and also-rans. They're simply songs about people who may be living between the broken lines -- sung in dreamy moods by a warm, yet matter-of-fact, voice. While they may sound too gentle to have much of an effect on the world -- to fix anything -- you never know. They might just grow on you.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 15 February 2002

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