INDIGO GIRLS/Become You
Indigo Girls, the eponymous debut in '89 by this Atlanta duo relied on strong vocals, soaring, dead-on harmonies and straight-ahead, no-frills folk guitars. Several albums later, with the help of strong material and a stellar backing band of session aces, Shaming of the Sun and its top 40 hit "Shame on You" showcased the virtuosity of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers' musicianship and compositional skills.
'94's Swamp Ophelia had plenty of great songs, but was bogged down by over-production and contrived, gimmicky arrangements. They stripped back down for more live feel, alternating between a hard-rocking electric quartet or a loose, rollicking bluegrass jam to accentuate the searing social commentary and retro "protest" songs for 99's Come On Social.
This outing, Indigo Girls seem to have struck a balance. The instrumentation and arrangements don't get in the way of the vocals, set off by their trademark counterpoint melodies and harmonies behind strong, confident leads. Amy Ray is the tough, raw, yet sometimes emotional and vulnerable foil to Emily Saliers crystalline soprano. As usual, Saliers' melodies are more tender and heartfelt, Ray provides the edge and swagger. Yet these familiar elements seem racheted down a notch this run. Like an over-rehearsed play, the lines seem delivered by rote, with little spark or verve.
They are obviously trolling for the pop country market, compromising their convictions just a bit on the CD jacket pre-announced hits "Moment of Forgiveness" and "Become You". The engaging quirkiness of Saliers' melodies is missing. Typically she leads the listener's ear one way, seemingly ready to resolve to a predictable cadence, only to twist in a new and jarring direction that made her songs both strange and beautiful. On Shaming of the Sun's "Caramia" or "Shed Your Skin" it took several listens to groove the melody in your head, and become accustomed to the unique chord changes and mode shifts. This time the melodies are still pretty, sometimes even very memorable and sweet, but not really inventive.
Amy Ray's traditional folk/country numbers, "Yield" and "Bitterroot" have none of the informal jugband feel of their Come On Social counterparts, "Gone Again" and "Ozilline". They are steadier, more polished, but lacking the immediacy, joyful feel and loping gait of her previous bluegrass workouts.
Amy Ray provides her requisite moody story-in-a-song, "Starkville", but "Cut It Out" (Shaming of the Sun) and "Sister" (Come On Social) were more compelling and eerie.
The album ends somewhat appropriately, with the somnolent ballad "Nuevas Senoritas", lulling you to sleep with the south-western imagery of an afternoon siesta.
These are some quality songs, very nicely produced and balanced, with the perfectly blended voices and instrumental backing of Indigo Girls' best work. But you aren't struck by any of the tunes. None of the lyrics jump out in stark beauty, like the achingly sad "Cold Beer and Remote Control" or "Andy" from their last album.
The saving grace of Become You is Salier's "She's Saving Me", an angelic aria delivered with real emotion and the bitter-sweet longing of her best stuff. When Ray's harmony rises to caress the melody, the old magical alchemy melding these two opposing forces finally transmutes mercury into gold. The song moves in unpredictable directions, avoiding the easy change. Here they are at their best, a moment of genius amidst the mediocrity.
All in all, it's a fine product. But it lacks the artistry or inspiration of Salier's earlier stuff. Ray just doesn't seem pissed off enough to growl out a raver with conviction. There is the unshakable feeling they are reining in the creative horses just a bit to garner more airplay or commercial acceptance. With the glut of models posing as musicians dominating the sales, awards and adulation, it must be tempting to try to homogenize the music to try to cash in themselves. They've earned it. But it makes it hard to deliver the flavor that gives most of their albums spice when you water down the sauce.