Wellfleet resident Patty Larkin has been one of the cape’s best-loved and respected musicians for decades now, a terrific performer who has amassed a body of work that is varied, original, and compelling. She also throws a mean Christmas party, and were I a less confidant correspondent, I might wonder if the reason I love her new record so much is in part because I had to miss the Christmas party this year, and I’m just jones-ing for some quality time with the divine Miss L.
Luckily, though, I am a trained, objective reporter, and thus impervious to that sort of distraction. And Patty’s new “Red = Luck” (Vanguard), is her best album yet; better even, I’ve decided (after much deliberation) than 1991’s “Tango”, which had been my favorite up to now. It is also her boldest album, and the one that the resembles the others least, which makes it all the more surprising that it would also be so thoroughly satisfying.
Despite excellent guest appearances by a number of folks (including Jonatha Brooks, Jennifer Kimball, Duke Levine, and Merrie Amsterberg), it also feels like her most intimate and sparsely arranged work to date, and the one that presents her remarkable singing and songwriting in the most stark (and effective) relief (perhaps a nod to the fine production work of Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom.) Dark, moody, and direct, it’s a record that takes a little time to absorb, and I admit I’m still taking it in; but it’s already clear it’s going to be one of the best albums of the year. Here’s some early impressions:
The first track, “All That Innocence”, sets the tone admirably with an optigan-like percussion loop and counterpoint guitar melodies that set a barren stage for a vocal that might have sounded overly dramatic in a more conventional setting but works wondrously well here; somewhere in the middle there’s a sublime wordless vocal and mellotron section, a few concise bars of heaven tossed to the wind.
The top of “24/7/365” announces that drums are going to be used a little more aggressively on this album, and on this song that’s a mixed blessing, as the martial snare approach seems a little at odds with the rest of the sonic landscape; but at least there is one, with some real atmosphere and some nice, slightly hard edge electric guitar, and Patty’s vocal still gratifyingly front and center.
“The Cranes” again plays with emptiness and silken guitars behind a commanding lyric: “If you’re thinking of leaving, you’re leaving at a very bad time” -one of several lines on this record that might not read like much, but somehow, in context, it sticks to you and stays in your head. This one’s more typically Patty than most of the rest, albeit still on the dark side.
Then we get to another high point, “Children”, which might be the best Lucinda Williams song anyone’s written since “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.” Her singing veers in many different directions on this album, perhaps in the spirit of Paul McCartney in the later Beatle years (who was that masked man who sang “Lady Madonna”?) This approach could have come off as undisciplined and affected, but instead seems spontaneously adventuresome -which is to say, you go, girl.
“Italian Shoes” is more comfortingly Patty, with a bracing splash of Ani DeFranco, and why not? -Patty did it first, anyway. Again, there’s a lot of space in these songs, sometimes almost a dry, noir kind of thing, and it offsets the passion of her vocal style really nicely. She’s had this feel on other records, but it’s accentuated even more on this one by cutting back on the window dressing -the arrangements are lean and mean, perhaps influenced by the downbeat Boston sound of folks like Morphine and the wonderful Merrie Amsterberg (who sings back-up harmonies on the record and opens Patty’s Cambridge show at Sanders Theater this Friday, February 21st (let’s charter a bus!!)
“Birmingham” is a little too much of a power ballad for me, but it almost works… it’s actually very pretty, and sounds great, lots of great elements, but in the end it comes out a little too Bryan Adams-y or something (I know I’ll be shot for that comment, and that I should be. In fact, what the hell, I’ll shoot myself -not this week, though.) And I don’t remember “Too Bad” that well -I think I was still trying to figure out how I felt about “Birmingham.”
Then we finally get to “Home”, an absolutely gorgeous acoustic ballad with just Patty and her guitar that is perfect, stunning, and short -I love it. There might be a tiny little touch of Rodgers and Hammerstein somewhere on this -at least I hope so. Hot on its heels is “Different World”, which sounds like a Richard Thompson steal to me (I know Patty’s a big fan, and so am I.) This one involves big (but, thank god, not huge) drums and ringing electric guitar lines and lots of dynamics, capped by a delightful baroque ending.
“Normal” is probably my favorite song on the record (so far), a tune at once so simple and yet so different from anything else. It almost sounds like the Eyesores, in their alternative/Astor Piazzolla mode: perfect, spooky, sparse, strange, and beautiful -this one is alone worth the price of admission. It’s followed by the title cut, a very pretty but not particularly noteworthy acoustic guitar and vocal fragment.
Next is one of those great little slices of pop heaven, as a slightly odd intro blossoms in to a Pretenders-like ringing guitar riff and rockin’ drum beat on “Inside Your Painting”-not overdone for a second, though, despite the line “you’re playing harmonica, I’m reading erotica”, which is absurdly memorable. Like I say, all an album needs nowadays to standout are a couple of songs this good; “Red = Luck” has five or six -phew!
“St. Augustine” could be bluegrass or celtic or -what the hell? She’s bamboozled us again! And the closing “Louder” not only rocks -its got a gypsy section!
Just buy the damn thing -I’m tired of tellin’ you!