Speakers Rating: 88/100
“I’m tired of saying that I won’t get lost ever again/ Who knows? Maybe I will…”
These are the first two lines from “Record Collector,” track one off Lissie’s debut album, Catching a Tiger (produced by Jacquire King and Bill Reynolds and out 8/17 in the States). I think there’s a massive amount to be said about her opening statement, her cool confidence that immediately deflates the idea that one must have her head about her at all times. Lissie is quick to say, “Hey, I might eff up! To be expected!” I like that.
I have to admit that after hearing Lissie’s Why You Runnin’ EP, released last November on Fat Possum, I stayed on her ass, followed her every little move, to make sure I was first in line for LP1. From her touring with big name singer-songwriters like Ray LaMontagne and Joshua Radin to her famous covering of pop goddesses, heavy metal bands, and hip hop artists, I’ve paid attention. Catching a Tiger has been one of my most hotly anticipated albums for 2010.
All the information I’ve seen and heard about Lissie over the past year has painted this meticulous, yet completely authentic, portrait of a beautifully plain (she refuses to even wear concealer at photo shoots), freckled-face, small town girl (she’s from Rock Island, Illinois but now lives in Ojai, California – population just under 8,000). She’s young (born in ’82), and given her immense vocal talent, her age gives her this satisfying, old soul vibe. She’s often dressed in plaid.
Because of this image, all five songs from Why You Runnin’ make complete sense to me. They are acoustic and sparse, alternating between the pastoral and the gospel, sometimes melding the two sensibilities, always putting that insane voice in the forefront. Three outta five songs off the EP made it over to Catching a Tiger: “Little Lovin’,” (a folksy foot stomper), “Everywhere I Go,” (a “repent and you will be forgiven” confessional) and “Oh Mississippi” (a “Bridge Over Troubled Water”-esque hymn produced by Ed Harcourt).
I definitely expected the rest of the eleven tracks on Catching a Tiger to echo this trio that made the jump. Instead, I found a really eclectic offering, and it took me several listens to get over myself and appreciate what Lissie’s doing here. Yes, some songs, like “Bully” and “This Much I Know” (an iTunes bonus track) feel like recognizable extensions of the Why You Runnin’ heartland sound, but she also tries the likes of unrestrained pop, ’60s girl group bliss, and gritty soul on for size. After all, she’s already told us she’s comfortable meandering off the straight and narrow path.
There’s no way that any listener with a heartbeat won’t instantly fall in love with “Stranger,” that nod to The Dixie Cups and The Shangri-Las, about a girl who’s not going to take any crap from a suspect guy. The reminiscent, “Cuckoo,” is a catchy pop track that fondly remembers her days of coming into her own, driving “a big girl truck that roared like a lion” and makes remarkable use of the literary technique, onomatopoeia. The second single, “When I’m Alone,” is full of moody verses and a fervent chorus about succumbing to the proverbial Mr. Wrong, a foil to the strength of “Stranger.”
And then there’s the aforementioned “Record Collector,” with a type of “Life’s Been Good,” dizzying percussion, an easygoing jam that climaxes into a confused bridge of demanding questions and then coasts back downhill to resettle before its end, once again comfortable in its expected imperfection, its welcome humanity.
That message in itself makes me reconsider any of my initial hesitation on Catching a Tiger. I’m not sure I’ve yet found a story woven between all fourteen songs, and while the batch of tunes doesn’t necessarily sound like a well-balanced meal, a perfectly stylized ensemble, I applaud Lissie for experimenting, wandering, maybe getting a little lost along the way.
Perhaps Lissie knew that’s what she was doing all along, maybe she’s just beating me to the punch. Maybe she’s creating the punch line. And I really like that.