Heart & Soul

In a deeply personal album, Amy LaVere swaggers and soars.

Brandon Dill

"Damn Love Song,” the lead track on Amy LaVere’s new album, Stranger Me, opens with 30 seconds of buzz before a ringing, blues-tinged guitar riff and then martial drums. The singer’s voice — more her calling card than even her novel upright bass —doesn’t enter until nearly the one-minute mark, and it hits notes rueful, sardonic, defiant: “Right now/I’ll do it right now/Here’s your damn love song/And don’t it say, don’t it say it all,” LaVere sings. 

It’s a bold, confident intro to an album that maintains that musical swagger for every one of its remaining 44 minutes.

After a tentative, genre-bound debut with 2006’s The World is Not My Home, LaVere’s second album, 2007’s excellent Anchors & Anvils — and especially its memorable lead track, “Killing Him” — carved a space for this Memphis-scene fixture in the wider “Americana” genre. And it would have been easy for LaVere to respond with Anchors & Anvils Pt. 2 — another feisty collection that pushed her voice and songs up front and stayed within the somewhat loose confines of the musical subculture that had embraced her. 

As it turned out, nothing was easy about Stranger Me; the four-year journey from the expertly performed but distanced Anchors & Anvils to this unabashedly personal new album was littered with delays and disruptions.

LaVere had wanted to work again with Jim Dickinson, who had produced Anchors & Anvils, but Dickinson’s illness and subsequent August 2009 death dashed those hopes. (LaVere reveals that after the elder Dickinson’s death, his son, Luther, gave her a stack of CDs he found among his dad’s studio material, a note affixed saying simply, “for Amy,” presumably music to provide inspiration — or, perhaps, songs – for the next project.) LaVere credits Dickinson with helping her learn to trust her musical voice on Anchors & Anvils, but she’d have to move forward without him. 

Next, the band LaVere had been traveling with — and with whom she recorded the stopgap EP Died of Love — unraveled. Guitarist Steve Selvidge was offered membership in the popular Brooklyn band, the Hold Steady, and LaVere’s relationship with drummer/romantic partner Paul Taylor ended. Taylor played with LaVere for a little while after their breakup, but soon left to concentrate on solo work and to tour with California songwriter Chuck Prophet. 

Eventually, LaVere found a new producer — noted engineer Craig Silvey, whom she had met during a London trip — and, she thought, a new band — members of the local jazz/soul trio the City Champs. 

“I fought for Craig, who was considered a far-left option for this genre, the whole singer-songwriter/Americana thing,” LaVere says. 

Recording on Stranger Me — which began last July — was further delayed when Silvey was bogged down mixing Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, which would go on to win a Grammy for Album of the Year.

And then, on the cusp of recording, LaVere made a change, scrapping plans to do the album with the band she’d been rehearsing.

“I blew it up at the last minute,” she says. “It wasn’t right stylistically and there were going to be too many touring conflicts.”

Faced with pulling together a new recording unit on the fly, LaVere’s first call was to Taylor, despite the fact that most of the material of what is essentially a break-up album was rooted in the dissolution of their relationship.

But LaVere says she and Taylor had remained on good terms even after their breakup and it wasn’t awkward to ask for his help on the album.

“So much of the material is looking at [the relationship and breakup] from all different angles,” she says. “We were both in it. We both lived it. I had all the songs. I knew what I wanted to be on the record. And Paul knew them. I’d been playing them around the house. The rhythm section was solid.”

LaVere’s second call was to Lucero multi-instrumentalist Rick Steff, with whom she’d played at a Playhouse on the Square concert with the City Champs. Steff mentioned guitarist Dave Cousar, a longtime musical associate — and the core of the session’s band was completed.

The album was tracked live as a four-piece, but embellished considerably.

“Rick brought every imaginable instrument to the studio,” LaVere says. (Among the instruments Steff is credited with playing: accordion, harmonium, air organ, farfisa, Hammond, Theremin, Mellotron, Casio, electric piano, Buddha box, glockenspiel . . . .)“The four of us and Craig were like kids playing in a toy box. It was a bunch of creative people who all admired each other. I didn’t know any better. I wanted the band to be well-rehearsed going in, and I was wrong.”

The result is an album where emotion and meaning are supplied as much by the music as by the lyrics or LaVere’s vocal performance. 

Even if you remove the vocals,” LaVere says, “the music tells the story.” 

The album has a consistent sound, but incorporates stylistic and tonal variety: There’s bluesy (“Red Banks}), jazzy (“A Great Divide,” an older song written with Selvidge), hooky (“You Can’t Keep Me”), slow and dreamy (“Often Happens,” “Tricky Heart”). One of the album’s three covers is an inspired left-field choice: Captain Beefheart’s evocatively romantic obscurity “Candle Mambo.” Another is daring in a different way: Swamp-pop pioneer Bobby Charles’ “Let Yourself Go (Come On)” deployed as a carnal closer.

And where Anchors & Anvils had a theatrical bent, Stranger Me is almost disquietingly direct at times.

“In my first band, I used to write fearlessly,” LaVere says, looking back to her pre-Memphis days as a teen in Michigan. “But also I was playing in a basement with friends. As I began playing to more people, I became less willing to bare myself. But I’m on less shaky ground now. I don’t see myself through people’s eyes. I don’t fear being judged.”

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