by Chris Berggren
Welcome to Alejandra O'Leary version 2.0. In early April, the young singer-songwriter introduced a new wrinkle to her already impressive musical repertoire--a backing band. Flanked by Jeremy Frey on bass and Jamie Church on guitar and with John Grandstaff keeping beat on the drums, O'Leary played her first gig with her new band on April Fool's Day, a mere two weeks after forming it.
For those unfamiliar with O'Leary, she is a real talent who has been gaining a strong following in Ann Arbor since she arrived here with her boyfriend, a U-M law student, a year ago. Born in Portland, Maine, O'Leary spent five years as a musician in New York City (where she cut her first album, Nothing Out Loud) before her move to Ann Arbor. Once in Michigan, she had to reestablish a fan base and initially did so by performing her songs solo on guitar. However, vascular problems in her left arm made playing guitar increasingly difficult, so now, with the backing of her new band, she has switched to keyboards.
O'Leary's voice sounds like a combination of Jenny Lewis and Victoria Williams, and her songs are both catchy and fun-- polished, straightforward, and barroom accessible. But they also have a certain lyrical toughness that's reminiscent of another Williams, Lucinda. In "Broken Mirror Baby" (the title track of her brand-new second album), she delivers lyrics about "talking smack and shooting your mouth off" and getting "the wind kicked out of me." "When Will They Learn" is an anti-crush song about wanting other people to realize the faults of her former boyfriend and stop pining over him--a very Lucinda Williams-ish theme.
While her songs stand on their own, O'Leary's between-songs banter shows her confidence in her craft and adds to the entertainment. "This is a drunken country ballad called 'Thinkin' Straight,' which is about not thinking straight," she quipped, full smile, before she and the band started in on a raucous tune that featured O'Leary kicking
a tambourine on a nearby table while shredding the keyboards and delivering a killer vocal.
"I love playing with a band," O'Leary admitted after the show. It showed. The band looked equally enthused, and the foursome can only get better with time. While the band wasn't involved in her new album, it certainly adds an edge to her older material, and it will be interesting to see what sorts of songs O'Leary and her musicians come up with collaboratively. Regardless, an already legitimate talent has added a bit more oomph to her rock 'n' roll credentials. I can't wait to see where it takes her.
Alejandra O'Leary and her band celebrate the release of Broken Mirror Baby with shows at Crazy Wisdom on September 3, at Woodruff's on September 7, and at the Tap Room on September 10.
[Originally published in September, 2011.]