Oh Susanna, |
Sleepy Little Sailor
(Stella/Nettwerk America, 2003)
There is a limited spectrum of country music that I find appealing. I do enjoy certain country affectations when they cross into rock and pop. So Elvis Costello's forays into the genre, the high-energy rockabilly that became fashionable via k.d. lang, or the smart, alt-country of the Jayhawks or the Cash Brothers are where my C&W affections lie.
Susanna Ungerleider, a.k.a. Oh Susanna, makes music that lies somewhere west of the Jayhawks, north of Patsy Cline.
I first ran across Oh Susanna on the compilation album The Grass is Always Bluer, which included her song "Down By the Quarry," perhaps the purest country/bluegrass track from Ungerleider's self-titled third album, released in 2003. As I wrote in my Rambles.NET review of The Grass is Always Bluer, "Quarry" is "a song with the sort of barely restrained passion that would feel right at home on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack."
Certainly the song was sufficiently powerful that I ended up purchasing the album from which it was drawn and then backtracking to pick up one of Oh Susanna's earlier releases.
In addition to "Quarry," Oh Susanna features plenty of exceptional music. Ungerleider explores familiar country themes such as dysfunctional family relationships ("Mama") and true love ("The One"), then cranks up the volume and rocks out on the socio-politically themed "Cain is Rising." In fact, from the mid-tempo opening track, "Carrie Lee," through the gentle closer, "Billy," the album seldom takes a misstep. Perhaps the decision to end the disc with three consecutive quiet, slow tracks could have been rethought, but otherwise Oh Susanna is the kind of album that leaves one anxiously awaiting the next release. But with nearly four years between the release of Oh Susanna and the scheduled release of Looking Glass in mid-2007, frustration becomes a factor.
Which brings me to Sleepy Little Sailor (2001), an album I picked up last fall, some two years after I'd first heard "Down By the Quarry."
Oh Susanna's sophomore album is a more purely country album than her third effort. Witness the lyric, "Why did I hope for the better / when everything kept getting worse? / We walked down the aisle together / while our love took a ride in a hearse" (from "Ted's So Wasted"). There are, however, a number of Celtic touches on Sleepy Little Sailor, particularly in the lyrics, which return again and again to images of sea and shore. And the inclusion of the Otis Redding track "I've Got Dreams to Remember" adds a bluesy touch to the disc without ever divorcing it from its country foundations.
The melodies on Sleepy Little Sailor are engaging with strong chorus hooks, but there's an absence of personality in the production and arrangements. Almost every track starts with spare instrumentation and builds to include the generic compliment of guitar, bass, drums and piano. The result is an anonymity that hamstrings many of the songs. This is unfortunate given that songs as strong as "St. Patrick's Day" deserve a treatment that brings all their strengths to the fore.
"River Blue" and "Sleepy Little Sailor" are the exceptions to the rule. These two songs, which launch the album, each contain defining production elements. The reverb-laden lead guitar on "Sailor" and the Hammond B3 organ on "River" are the sorts of distinguishing marks that were needed throughout the album. Sleepy Little Sailor closes with the epic, 10-minute track "Ride On," a song that manages to feel much shorter than a sixth of an hour. But upon hearing the song's final note fade away, one isn't drawn to replay the album in the way that Oh Susanna manages to pull me back to track one.
Both Sleepy Little Sailor and Oh Susanna were produced by Colin Cripps, who also played guitar on most tracks and contributed to the songwriting on occasion as well. Certainly his production skills show a greater maturity and dexterity on the 2003 release. But for Looking Glass Ungerleider has taken over the production duties with help from longtime collaborator/bassist Bazil Donovan and drummer/husband Cam Giroux. Be looking for it come May when it's due to hit stores.
by Gregg Thurlbeck