Nancie de Ross,
(independent, 2003)

Rome is an album likely to be stocked with folk or adult contemporary, just because store owners can't figure out where else to place it. Nancie de Ross could fit into either category, and many others, but none would quite fit her style. With a classical voice and minimalist instrumental backup, de Ross taps into a tradition of old folk, updated past the point of contemporary, and makes herself a balladeer.

The songs on Rome are perhaps not traditional subjects for ballads; drug addiction, abusive relationships, and the slow decay of time are far removed form old tales of valor and courtly romance. And no one looking for adherence to a rigid structure would ever consider the haiku simplicity of "Lonesome Sky" a ballad. But the spirit of the ballad, of telling a complicated story with its facts in place and its emotion laid bare, infuses Rome with a sophistication far beyond the contemporary.

De Ross sings with a fine full voice, sweet and even, so steady that the wildest high notes sound as natural as conversation. But even more, she sings with conviction, a steady belief in the words and feelings of her songs that simultaneously anchors her airy imagery and sends her most mundane moments flying. "Let That Girl Love You" would be a standard, if not tired, song of warning in most singers' mouths. Coming from de Ross, it takes on a loving desperation, rich with the frustration of a friend trying to make the most important of points with simple words. "Angela Anne," a tale of a woman in painful love that could be merely sad, instead takes on the urgency of a rescue effort and an almost realistic sense of nightmare repetition.

Part of the power of de Ross's songs is certainly from her lyrics. She creates lyrical images and captures ethereal feelings using the most basic, pared down language possible. "Today's James" captures the wasted potential of all kinds of addiction in shadow play motions and concrete props. "Lonesome Sky" holds a lifetime of stories in a few brief and largely repetitive stanzas. De Ross's melodies are sweet. Her instrumental skills are impressive in both grace and versatility. But the real strength of Rome is revealed by the cover of "Sesame Street." With nothing but a slight shift in tempo and her own inimitable sincerity, de Ross transforms a television theme into wistful ballad, something to break hearts and call smiles at the same time.

That sincerity gives Rome the intimate feel of a confession, and the voyeuristic thrill of an overheard conversation. At the same time, de Ross hides nothing; few performers are so open in their delivery and intent. The resulting balance creates an album of rare elegance and warm familiarity, carried on some of the smoothest melodies around.

by Sarah Meador
22 April 2006

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