You shouldn't judge a book by its cover but perusing its table of contents often gives clues of what's in store. The first chapter of Amy LaVere's Stranger Me, "Damn Love Song," may not scream 'Breakup Album' but it's hard not to jump to that conclusion when considered in the context of a few other chapter titles like "You Can't Keep Me," A Great Divide," and "Cry My Eyes Out." You won't be disappointed if you buy the record hoping that assumption holds true. You won't be disappointed if you buy the record, period.
"Damn Love Song" is a brilliant, haunting piece of songcraft that opens the album with our story already in progress. I sometimes find it difficult to relate to songs about songs, or about songwriters but it doesn't take much effort to put ourselves inside this situation. For LaVere and her now former lover, a love song might have been an unfulfilled promise of the relationship that died, perhaps just one of many promises made but weren't kept before it was too late- or maybe LaVere is just cleaning out her closet and emptying her apartment of relationship memorabilia. The latter seems a little more likely if we take our cues from the airy drone created by Rick Steff's harmonium, air organ, and accordion accents.
"Red Banks," the first song I heard from the record, is drenched in the lore of the Delta and I wouldn't have been a bit surprised to see the songwriting credit go to Memphis Minnie rather than Kristi Witt. A woman is convinced her relationship is going to end in murder: hers or his. She envisions drowning him in the river before he can get to her... and then at the end of the song denies or is in denial
"You Can't Keep Me Here" is filled with breakup language cliches and about the time I was about to give up on it, I found myself smirking at the line " I don't need this love for any kind of heartbreak resume." Just as soon as she'd delivered that line, the cliches started again and I was about to get annoyed because LaVere is a stronger lyricist than that, until I realized the joke was on me all along:
"I'm stompin' out of here
I hope the rain comes pouring down-through your roof
It's nothing new."
She's been here before and there's nothing special about this one other than, well, breakups suck.
LaVere sells "Often Happens" with her vocal and some aching harmonies provided by producer Craig Shivley but beneath the pretty sounds and beautiful singing, she reminds us of the torturous hours and days spent creating home movies of the roads not traveled and words left unsaid:
I've been wasting countless days
on something clearly out of my power, out of my power
Often happens when I start to sleep
I imagine we can really talk
And we're saying all the things that awake we only thought
And sometimes we getting on and we give this thing some spark
Sometimes the dream just goes dark."
No matter how many different ways she dreams it the movie always fades to black with her saying "My heart keeps lying saying I’ll be fine / Yeah, my heart keeps lying saying I’ll be fine."
Through it all, whether it's detailing the scars of heartbreak or a cover of a Captain Beefheart song, LaVere's beautifully expressive voice is at the center of it all. It is one of art's divine miracles, the ability to take the pain that living brings and make it something beautiful. Stranger Me is one more elegant example of that phenomenon.