Oh Susanna,
Short Stories
(Stella/Outside Music, 2007)

With a plaintive note from Luke Doucet's pedal-steel guitar, augmented by chords from a six-string acoustic guitar, we're on our way through the first of 11 quietly remarkable tracks on Short Stories, the latest musical outing from Oh Susanna, a.k.a. Suzie Ungerleider.

It's been four years since the release of Suzie's last album, and during that time she's become a more mature and confident singer. There's a wonderful ease to the vocals on Short Stories. And the production, handled by the trio of Suzie, her husband/drummer Cam Giroux and long-time collaborator, bassist Bazil Donovan, allows room for the vocals to command center stage without subjugating the instrumentation. The arrangements are inventive without being gimmicky, layered without ever sounding cluttered.

There aren't many places on Short Stories where the energy level rises above a slow simmer, but that's not to say that there's no power in the songs. Suzie Ungerleider is a master at projecting anger, passion and all manner of intense emotion without raising her voice. The song "Bullies" is a prime example of a quiet vocal that's on a short leash, one that threatens to snap at any moment. "Kicked you down and there you fell / Called you little ne'er do well / But listen closely, time will tell / Alone you'll never be."

While "Bullies" is a powerful mix of anguish and calming reassurance, there's a darker thread lurking beneath the pretty melody of "Beauty Queen." It's the story of a woman sent to the electric chair for the murder of her abusive husband. "She was a beauty queen, strapped to a cold machine. / Pretty face but her eyes were mean, from all she had seen. / Crowds all came out to cheer, buy souvenirs and drink their beer. / They laughed so loud so they could not hear her dying screams." This is powerful stuff, not for the faint of heart. So be careful, because the captivatingly simple tunes to which these dark tales are set will lull the unwary listener into a false sense that all is right with the world.

"Greyhound Bus" is another terrific track, this time exploring a somewhat more positive side of profound loss. "When I was 17 I gave up my little girl / but she still haunts my dreams. / In the pocket of my jeans I got a picture, torn and curled. / I wonder if she's just like me." Here, Bob Packwood's piano lead and Cam Giroux's harmony vocals lend the track an uplifting edge that perfectly augments this story of a woman making the best of a life that's had its fair share of hardship.

Short Stories also makes a couple of interesting forays into history to examine a pair of western legends. In "Three Shots" Oh Susanna gives us her take on the classic tale of Stagger Lee, opting for the version of the story in which Stagger Lee shoots Billy DeLyon after a gambling quarrel (rather than the Dick Clark-inspired sanitization of the story in which the disagreement is over a woman, and no gets shot). The intermingling of mandolin and slide guitar sets a somber mood and Suzie's subdued vocals make the killing all the more chilling for her lack of obvious emotion. The song is one of the highlights of the disc.

A wonderfully low-key version of Bob Dylan's "Billy 4" (from his 1973 album Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid) is the second historical shooting featured on Short Stories. The move to a female vocal shifts the perspective of the track, making it both more intimate and more melancholy. Suzie delivers her vocal in a slightly slurred, world-weary manner that suggests a woman tired of caring too deeply for a man hell-bent on self-destruction. The instrumentation is spare, allowing the story-song to stand on the strength of its lyric. But despite the inclusion of this narrative masterpiece Suzie's own songs are not at all diminished by the track. Her compositional skills are, if anything, shown to be worthy of the comparison to such a respected songsmith.

The album closes on a lush note with the strings-infused track "Filled with Gold." It exposes a cheerier side of Oh Susanna and while the song is catchy enough, mostly it sets me to longing for the moodier material on Short Stories. It's in the album's darker moments that Ungerleider displays her greatest strengths. It's with despair that she wins me over. Check out this exceptional disc and see if you too aren't captivated by the beautifully bleak emotional landscapes portrayed in the music of Oh Susanna.

review by
Gregg Thurlbeck

15 December 2007

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