torch songs: amy ray’s latest solo album steps away from her folkie indigo past and into her punk present

original publish date: 12 aug 2008
by kurt b. reighley,

CRITICS OFTEN PIGEONHOLE Amy Ray and her sister-in-arms, Emily Saliers, as folkies. Fair enough. Like Billy Bragg and Joan Baez, the Indigo Girls have rallied millions and demanded accountability from leaders of politics, industry, and the media via their songs.

But when Ray steps out on her own, the music emphasizes different qualities. Electric guitars supplant acoustic ones, and her sentiments and delivery reveal a rawer edge. No wonder she puts out all her solo efforts on her own Daemon Records imprint rather than release them through a larger label. She may have gold and platinum albums hanging in her home, but Amy Ray, solo artist, is DIY all the way. Several of her musical cohorts on Didn’t It Feel Kinder, particularly guitarist Kaia Wilson and drummer Melissa York, will be more familiar to aging riot grrrls and queercore kids than VH1 viewers.

The aspect that most immediately distinguishes Ray’s solo work from her Indigo Gifts output is the vocals, divorced–well, temporarily separated–from the uplifting harmonies she sings with Saliers. Like alt-country underdog Mary Gauthier’s or underground rock veteran Thalia Zedek’s, Ray’s pipes sound weathered in the best possible way, the cracks, low notes, and rough edges creating an aural topography that bespeaks her life experience. Between the fuzz-laden, distorted guitars and the desolate vocal delivery, Ray gives Neff Young a run for his money on album opener “Birds of a Feather.”

Fans of her earlier studio albums, Stag (2001) and Prom (2005), will be pleasantly surprised to find Ray experimenting more too. A resonant Hammond B-3 organ adds gravity to the quiet and moody “She’s Got to Be.” For the first time she even brings in an outside producer: Greg Griffith, whose credits include the Butchies and Le Tigre.

The singer turned 44 this year, an age by which most folks are pretty firmly settled down. Yet the superlative Didn’t It Feel Kinder is shot through with themes of distance, movement, and transition: On “Bus Bus,” melting ice caps set polar bears adrift; “Out on the Farm” references fording streams. Ragged and ramshackle, the epitome of the classic three-chords-and-the-truth formula, “Cold Shoulder,” finds her pledging allegiance to “the deviants and the tranny nation” who remind her to eschew labels. The taut and percussive “SLC Radio” celebrates Utah youngsters operating a community station from deep in the heart of Latter-day Saints country; its explosive chorus is the catchiest moment on the album. File the Indigo Girls under “folk” if you must, but in spirit, Amy Ray is punk as fuck.


~ by Erin on Saturday, July 4, 2009.

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