Play on, Sister! A Review of the 'Bread or Water' by Alaria Taylor
At yet another open mic here in Brooklyn, NY, the audience was pummeled by half- baked self expression of the most basic kind. Mostly mopey sadness or wan bitching. Which is fine. That's what open mics are for and, unlike some other reviewers, this writer won't pretend that he was never young, always wise and could always play an instrument well. It's just that when you reach the point when people go "okay, enough already" you've, well, reached that point. I thought of these things as I looked at the CD cover for Bread or Water by Alaria Taylor, and read about her presence in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin music community, particularly at open mics featuring women performers. Here was another woman, a songwriter, guitar in hand and an earnest expression on her face. Oh boy. But then I put on the CD and actually listened to the music. Surprise! Not bad, in fact quite good. No cliche ridden songs with facile emotional expressions (I'm sad, mommy made me clean my room, I'm horny, I God sucks). Her songs show mature insight into the human condition and express these insights with flair and musicality.
One thing that helps is that, whereas the term singer/songwriter evokes American folk music, this record is thoroughly based in country music, with it's bluesy, earthy, foot stomping rhythms and pathos in the storytelling. The opening song, the rousing "Nobody Else Like You," is road house ready, line-dancin' country rock. This cut, which garnered an Honorable Mention in the Billboard Magazine World Songwriting Contest, was intended as an answer to the above described open mic experience: "I wrote (this song) as sort of an antidote to those feelings of hopelessness so many of us face." It starts with acoustic and electric guitars playing urgent licks. When the bass and drums come in you can almost hear the rebel yells as she sings, "God don't make mistakes - it's no accident you're here / Just hold on tight - it's not too late your purpose, your purpose will be clear." The soul of country music, and the song's urgency, is captured by Alaria's voice and the slide guitar of Keith Pulvermacher.
Other songs focus on personal loss, especially loss of love. This well-trod territory gets fresh treatment on "Since You Been Gone" and "Bread or Water." The former has a drone-like, insistent quality reminiscent of Irish and British folk music, with the fiddle replaced my Jared Snyder's cello. The latter is anchored by fast, finger-picking guitar -- by Taylor's all star, Grammy winning producer Joe Puerta (Ambrosia, The Alan Parsons Project, Bruce Hornsby and The Range), who also plays bass throughout the CD -- that would have made Porter Wagoner smile. On "Bread or Water," in particular, drummer John Calarco plays like a jazz-influenced Ringo Starr. That means, while his licks, drum parts (especially on the songs' intros) and fills show muscle and technique; he plays the songs, pushing, pulling, and prodding things along in a way that if he did too much or too little, the songs wouldn't be the same... they'd most likely be worse (think of heavier, harder and busier drums on Beatles songs - see what I mean?).
Photo by Christopher O. Bluhm
Make no mistake, however, the songs are propelled and compelled by Ms. Taylor's evocative voice and songwriting skill which, lyrically, tend to show and not tell. Instead of saying I feel like hell because my baby left, she says: "I don't brush my hair - and I don't brush my teeth / I'm in bed all day - but I can never sleep / I just sit and stare / I guess I just don't care / Since you been gone." Now that's what I call love sickness. You can feel those words.
The Spanish-tinged "Time of Angels," with its plaintive guitar melody and emotionally wrought singing tests one's ability to hold city slicker cynicism/skepticism at bay. But who can resist a tug at the heart from lines like "A little girl - just 12 years old - upon her dying bed / Every hair is missing - from her precious head / She sees ... a figure at her door / He comes to guard her and to show her life is so much more?" Not me, you give it a try.
And the final song on the CD, entitled "A Blue Thing That Chases Me," tackles a subject that nobody outside of Morrisey and his old band The Smiths have: depression. Here, it is portrayed as a nameless, formless energy, like a ghost or poltergeist, that follows and lights on people.
This multiple, award winning singer, as much known for her support of women's music in her community as for her own musical output, has fashioned a nice EP that hints at more inspiring songs to come.
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