When Ellen Cherry asked me to review her new album Heart Like a Lion for "the blogosphere," I was honored and flattered, but also a bit amused. I have access to only a very tiny bit of the blogosphere, after all--a handful of regular readers and all the dudes who come here accidentally following fruitless Google searches for porn. [I don't know that she'd want those cats at her upcoming CD Release Parties.]
I was also secretly terrified by the request, because I don't typically review music in more than a most shallow manner. I'll think about books and films a bit before blurbing, but don't really consciously consider music much, and I don't have a set of characteristics which define "good" records. I either dig it or I don't. Plus, there's that whole "How do you respond when friends want your opinion of their work?" problem. You know the one. Should I write nice things even if I don't think them? Should I be completely objective? Brutally honest? Constructive? What if I--gasp--hated the record?
I've been listening to Heart Like a Lion daily now for a couple weeks (I'm listening to it now, in fact), and while I can't say all my fears were unjustified (I can't improve my skills as a music reviewer), I can say that all the other fears were rendered moot after a couple listens, because I dig it. Today is the perfect type of weather for a listen, because HLaL reminds me of other CDs I pull out as soon as the weather hits 70 degrees for the first time, usually in May, albums like Liz Phair's Whip-Smart or Aimee Mann's Lost in Space, albums which rock a bit, grow occasionally introspective, dip into trilling piano and poppy hooks while not fearing a bit of dissonance, albums which strike a variety of emotional tones but manage to be interesting and fun in their entirety.
I've got three of Ellen's previous CD's; I like Years best of all, but even on that fine recording there's a propensity for her voice to sound different than it does live, somehow almost reserved. She's got a powerful set of pipes, but on CD it often sounds like she's holding back--perhaps an equipment or production problem? Well rest assured that on the new album this isn't the case at all. The vocal production is uniformly excellent, and I can find no fault with the mix (E.C. was quick to point out that this was chiefly due to the genius of Darin Lang a.k.a. Thundergod--drummer and chief engineer for the recording. Kudos to him!).
The musicianship is exceptional throughout as well--E.C. (protestations to the contrary) is a gifted guitarist/pianist, and she's not only got Thundergod on drums, but also the classically-trained duo Kirsten and Lucien Welsh on cello and bass respectively; these are fantastic players I know well from their many live gigs with Move Like Seamus.
So, what I'm left with are the songs. When I find a CD with half good tracks and a couple stand-outs, I'm typically pleased. Heart Like a Lion exceeds this standard with several excellent songs. Ellen Cherry's decade of songwriting and touring is evident in the title track (which opens like a classic '80s pop song, with an irresistable keyboard sequence a la Cindy Lauper), "Starting Over" builds gently to a great hook, and the opener, "Giddy Up!" is a jumping rock number with clever time changes and another wonderful chorus. Tracks 2-6 are all marvelous, and really show off the record's diversity. I like the mysterious intro to "In Reverse," the energetic jam "Take So Long," the jangly melancholy reverby feel of "I Hope to Dream of You Tonight," and then the complete shift in tone to the upbeat and folksy "Something Insanely Clever" (which has some percussive guitar chord work reminiscent of Michael Hedges).
I mean, yeah. I'm going to stop now. But I've been telling folks about the CD Release Parties* in person for some time not because I know Ellen Cherry and her bandmates, but because I like this record a lot. I know I'm going to be there because I want to hear the songs live. You should too.
*Note, DC readers, that there is a show in your neck of the woods too!