Feeding the spark
by Erick Trickey
Indigo Girl Amy Ray's new solo album, Prom, starts with an affectionate glimpse of a bunch of high school misfits, "the punks and the queers and the freaks and the smokers." They're waiting for rides, feeling "like they'll be waiting for the rest of their lives." Then she sets her dusky alto loose on a chorus that could be a manifesto for all her music: "I've got this spark. I've got to feed it something / Or put it out for good."
Ray has always been the passionate half of the Indigo Girls, the folksinger who you know had a rock album or two in her. You could hear it when she sped up Dire Straits' mopey breakup ballad "Romeo and Juliet" into a match-and-gasoline triumph, and in the tinge of nightmare in her songs on the duo's self-titled breakthrough album: the dread in "Kid Fears," the self-destruction in "Blood and Fire."
So Ray's fans thrilled to hear her go electric on Stag (2000). Backed by the all-female punk-rock band the Butchies on half the songs, she got angry, singing about murdered gay teen Matthew Shepard on "Laramie" and disrespect for women in the music industry on "Lucystoners." Yet Stag wasn't entirely satisfying. Ray told one interviewer it was made up of "old songs I could never quite finish." My favorite, "Black Heart Today," clocked in at 2:10 and seemed to be missing a third verse.
There are no unfinished tracks on Prom. It's a major work, full of great songwriting. It starts as a concept album about high school, but before long, its tales of repressed desire and the search for identity and connection become universal. Backed on some tracks by two members of queercore band Team Dresch and Luscious Jackson drummer Kate Schellenbach, Ray plays with musical styles more than ever, and for maybe the first time, she lets the music tell the story and allows the lyrics to reveal themselves slowly.
track, "Driver Education," is singsongy, hazy-happy, as close as Ray will ever get to girl-group candy. But the sweetness hides barbs: you can so enjoy hearing her voice trip over the opening notes, you don't realize she's singing "I fell for guys who tried to commit suicide / With soft-rock hair and bloodshot eyes."
After three songs set in adolescence, she kicks into "Give In," a two-minute punk-rock rave-up and plea for intimacy whose narrator could be thirty-six or sixteen. Unlike the truncated songs on Stag, it's totally satisfying. So are "Rural Faggot," about a confused gay kid on the verge of coming out, and "Covered for You," about love thwarted by self-destruction with a plaintive chorus that's vintage Ray, tragedy transformed into beauty. Of course, Ray and her misfits were never going to put out their spark. By the end of the lead-off track, the title line, "Put it out for good," has become "Let it burn for good."
Ray's spending October on the road with her band the Volunteers, veterans of several southern indie-rock bands. They play the Blind Pig Sunday, October 23.
[Review published October 2005]