"We are here," proclaims the title to the debut CD from Whit Hill and the Postcards. They have every right to call your attention to the fact. This musical communiqué is everything you'd hope for from a band that unites the talents of Whitley Setrakian Hill, long known around town as a dancer and more recently as a singer-songwriter with something to say, and her husband, Al Hill, the talented local bluesman who leads the Love Butlers.
I'd seen Whit play a solo acoustic set before, but backed by Al on guitar and keyboards, with warm bass (Patrick Prouty) and understated drums (Tim Gahagan), she has become a polished musical force not to be missed. After only one listen to the CD and a show at the Ark, I found myself singing along to the ready melodies and memorable words.
While they promote their sound as "alt-country," their range of song styles is hard to categorize. Al plays boogie-woogie or swingin' jazz piano, country-fried guitar, slinky slide, or whatever else Whit's compositions demand. There's the expected fem-girl folk, and the obvious heart-wrenching influence of Lucinda Williams, but there's also toe-tapping R&B, and even an entertaining zydeco two-step called "Maddie," in which Whit recalls her brief, volatile friendship with Madonna when they were both dance students at the U-M.
Whit often sings with a pretty-baby voice like Emmylou Harris's. She also has a haunting lilt for sexy numbers about hiding out in a train's sleeping car or making love on the breakfast table ("Please pass the salt, please pass the sugar, please pass you"). Although she and Al harmonize on several tunes, on stage they keep their emotional distance from one other. It comes off as a shyness that's kind of sweet.
Whit has written more than one song from the perspective of the homely girl who has accepted her fate. She's hardly homely, but she's no babe, either — her stage presence does not play up to the audience. She lets the music do the work.
Her lyrics have the backbone for it, using situations and characters to tap into common feelings. "50 Miles to Detroit" laments the loss of a far-away lover while appreciating a substitute: "It ain't nothing like you, baby, but at least it's close to home." "Sandusky" describes the empty horror of the life of a daily commuter. In one of the best pieces, with a bubbly reggae beat, Whit sings of a lover who is a hero and protector "there in my dreams, but where are you in the morning?"
Less impressive are her narrative-heavy caper songs, including a twisted tale of circus performers in love and an ugly barroom massacre. These are strong musically, and metaphorically clever, but more complicated and affected than they have to be. Fortunately, Whit Hill can also write a simple, believable love song to make your scalp tingle. I'm glad she is here.
Whit Hill and the Postcards are at the Club Above upstairs at the Heidelberg on Thursday, April 22.