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All the Ladies in the House

By B.A. Nilsson

Amy Engelhardt

Not Gonna Be Pretty (Coldfoot)

Amy Engelhardt enjoys words, whether she’s singing them or writing them or, in the case of her new CD, both. Her lyrics are witty, trenchant and persuasive, and she’s set them to melodies that lull you into enjoying them as catchy tunes—until they veer into contrasting territories. In other words, she’s got the craft down cold, if not better than most because she has a rare and intelligent edge in wordsmithery.

“[It] would be so great if you could be like me/It would be so great if you could like me,” is the heart of the chorus of the opening song, a single mom’s troubled lament to her teenage daughter that brims with an undercurrent of all-too-familiar guilt and shame transmission. The dynamic ensemble is headed by pianist Bob Malone, giving jazzy inflections to a pop-lively number.

Engelhardt’s most high-profile gig is as one-fourth of the Bobs, an a cappella ensemble with a 25-year legacy of creating new ways to combine voices while performing a large repertory of classics and originals. Since joining 10 years ago, Engelhardt has created a number of her own original songs for the group, so it’s not surprising (and, in fact, very satisfying) to find her going solo as well.

The 13 album tracks offer a fascinating tour of degrees of annoyance and pain, most rendered wryly. “Are you a pothole or a ramp?” asks one anthemic song. “Do you want to help me fly/Or trip me up until I cramp?”

Veering into the cynical, “Anywhere Else but Me” begins, “Woke up on the sofa/Patterns on my face/Smacked my knee on the table/I’m not used to this place,” and goes on to look at love from significantly detached locations. “What Do You Look Like” takes a parallel journey, but with temporal detachment.

Engelhardt also is an impressive balladeer, with a rich voice and the ability to paint an evocative portrait with a poetically few words. “Idaho” carries the terse refrain, “Scenery/Mountains and rivers mute the mean in me” sung to the very effective accompaniment of Gil Ayan’s solo guitar.

“Are You Dead or Are You Undead” is a repeated chant of the title, the basso of fellow-Bob Richard Greene underpinning the piece; as Engelhardt joins the chant, “undead” starts to sound like “wounded,” giving the song an intriguing ambiguity.

Engelhardt may be a tad too intelligent to rack up big mainstream sales, but I hold out hope. For those who want to be in at the debut of a witty, bright, affecting singer-songwriter, head to coldfoot.net and grab a copy.

Mia Doi Todd

Gea (City Zen)

With her seventh album, Mia Doi Todd continues a pursuit of romantic compositions and arrangements. Built around her clearly articulated guitar playing and softly forceful singing, the music has roots in modal musics from many lands and eras, and bears more than a passing resemblance to the inviting poetics and undulating landscapes of Nick Drake. She opens the set with the longest track, the 10-minute-plus “River of Life/The Yes Song,” in which her nylon-string guitar weaves a hypnotic tapestry of harmonium and hand drum. Her vocal moves almost imperceptibly from singing to chanting and back again. Depending on the particulars of the environment into which this music is introduced, it can be everything from a soothing balm to a cerebral journey. At times the balance does tip towards porcelain-teacup fragility, but this is generally due to the lyrics being too self-aware and precious (“Night of a Thousand Kisses”). Mia tends to hop back by the next song, and her music’s sonic quality frees it from the linguistic syrup handily.

—David Greenberger

The Valerie Project

The Valerie Project (Drag City)

If you’re going to write a concept album, why not base it on an obscure Czech film that illustrates the concept of menstruation through an allegory of vampires, magic earrings, and a lecherous priest that may or may not be the protagonist’s biological father? Margie Wienk (of Fern Knights), Greg Weeks and Brooke Sietinsons (both of Espers) and have done just this. The first installation of a dawning “Project Series,” The Valerie Project strives to recontextualize the filmic meaning of Jaromil Jireš’ 1970 classic Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, widely regarded as the final example of Czech new-wave film, by fully replacing its soundtrack. With a veritable indie orchestra at their command, the Project achieve far more than a cheeky synch-up, in the manner of Pink Floyd’s so-called “Dark Side of Oz.” Rather, the group have completely repainted the dark, psychedelic fairytale in a baroque, but contemporary gloss that drifts accordingly from innocent harp themes to dissonant guitar-driven mayhem. Penned to accompany a live screening of the film, the album suffers at times from its lack of visual narrative; yet, even in its disembodied form, the album provides a cohesively eerie soundtrack to a lazy Sunday morning or late-night drive.

—Josh Potter


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