Tuesday, February 16, 2010
For Raina Rose's 'When May Came'
I met Raina Rose six years ago when I was living in a creaky old house in Denton, TX and she was blowing through town like the wind, like she always does. We became friends after a night at a friend's house with guitars, Grateful Dead, and popcorn. After she left, we stayed in touch without even trying which I guess is what happens when you decide to make music your life and meet others who have done the same. I now have the pleasure of seeing and hearing her around Austin and was really excited to get to spend some time this afternoon with her new album, When May Came.
This is Raina's 4th album and was recorded by Stephen Orsak in our neighbor PJ Oehler's spare room under the oak trees in south Austin. The recording really glows with the joy and laughter of how comfortable she was in the space, surrounded by friends; musical, nonmusical, and canine. Gone are the touches of reverb on her voice, steel guitar, electronics, and full backup bands which occasionally made some of her previous efforts seem a bit impersonal. As a reflection of her brutally honest lyrics, her voice is present and real, like you are listening to her in your own living room or on your back porch which is where, if you are a fan of Raina's live shows, you probably first saw her. Her voice and deft guitar playing are front and center in the mix and are lovingly encircled by quality musicianship and simple arrangements with string bass, banjo, cello, keys, guitar, and a couple of talented ladies lending some backup vocals. The economy and the craftsmanship of the arrangements on this album reminds me of the desert; nothing is there that isn't necessary and the space and simplicity makes everything that is there beautiful.
With her crafty guitar work and soaring voice, sometimes gritty like Janis, sometimes warbly like Nina Simone, Raina could easily fool you into thinking she is just a folk singer. Belting out bluegrass standards in the middle of the street at the Kerrville Folk Festival or (as when I met her) laughing through Grateful Dead favorites around the coffee table in Johann's garage apartment, she wears the traveling troubadour hat well. But like any great songwriter that has come before, Raina shares her talent equally on this album as a singer and as a storyteller. Every character and situation is wrought carefully with detail, the words tumbling out one after the other and flying away to make room for more. Where lesser writers might have left Desdemona as being beautiful and lovely, Raina makes sure you know that 'Desdemona is a coyote/you can't own her' who would not just travel but 'travel like Moses on the road'. A pop song in its own right complete with handclaps and a bouncy sing along chorus, Desdemona would satiate not only the 'hands in the air wave em like you just don't care' crowd but people who are actually listening as well. In some of Raina's earlier work, like the song 'I Like you Better' she goes straight for the good stuff, before :30 we're already 'making love like we're making dinner.' Her approach to the the love song idea is really different here, cautious, less willing to give you everything at once, drawing it out like seasoned veteran of not just having love affairs but writing about them. She seems done with the obvious and takes you to the lonely corners of the heart where she's not afraid to just talk about the good stuff but also about the agony, longing, and loss of love like on 'If You're Gonna Go' or the penitent 'Bluebonnets' where she promises (backed up by Grace Rowland and David Moss of the Blue Hit) not to 'read the last page first and miss the story of it.'
Raina uses the talents of her ATX band well, augmenting the dark escape-in-the-night 'Nashville' with a great driving rhythm section from Derek Hansen of Wino Vino on drums, Drew Pressman of the Electric Mountain Rotten Apple Gang on bass, and the flying fingers of Trevor Smith of Green Mountain Grass on banjo. When I gave the song 'Hearts Broken Open' a first listen, I am not kidding, I was sitting outside in the grass and two red tailed hawks flew in front of me, circling one another in the sky. As they drifted out of sight they made a perfect metaphor for the lovely interplay on this track between Drew Pressman's bass and Raina's voice and guitar playing. The bass and guitar circle each other, giving and taking, melody, rhythm, and harmony. The lavish touches from Adam Rader, Stephen Orsak, and Stephen Smith are too many to mention, even if it's just one note as on 'If You're Gonna Go' or the churchlike solemnity the Rhodes lends to 'Your Neighbor's Trampoline.'
I'm historically not really much of a believer in folk music, singer songwriters, or girls with guitars, but I believe in lovely and immensely talented Raina Rose and can't wait to see what she has up her sleeve next.