Sara Cox: Arrive

Independent girl

Sara Cox stirs the waters with Arrive

Sara Cox’s only previous solo effort, 2000’s EP Firewater, has been in heavy rotation ever since it showed up here at the Phoenix offices (rivaling only our contraband Raycharles Lamontagne disc and Spouse’s seminal Nozomi for repeated listens).

I am enthralled and engaged by Cox’s vocal range, mesmerized by her melancholy pathos, lulled by her sweet sentiment. It’s sort of pathetic, really. I find myself driving along in the car, getting all teary-eyed listening to “Fourth Child” or “No Harm,” manufacturing things for myself to feel all depressed about. There’s no doubt that music (second maybe only to smell) is a highly charged emotional trigger.

So, it should come as little surprise that I am wholly in love with Cox’s debut full-length, Arrive. I’ve even made a copy of it, so I can have it at work and at home and not have to worry about fighting over it with my wife.

Unlike the Coming Grass’s Transient, released earlier this year, almost all of the material on Arrive is being released for the first time, barring the title track, which appeared on GFAC 207, Vol. 3, and doesn’t pop up here until the very end. The material seems to have to come to Cox in a flood. I remember last winter, when she started talking about a solo effort, she said she was writing all kinds of new songs, “and some of them are even kind of happy.”

I think happy might be a relative term for her. These aren’t party songs, but they are, from time to time, upbeat; there is a pervasive feeling of impenetrable hope that keeps what are reflective and thoughtful songs from delving too far into the miasma of Nick Drake or David Gahan.

There are even likely singles here. The opening two numbers, “The Milk Song” and “Hit the Wall,” are adult-alternative radio naturals. With a full-band sound, poppy sentiment, and lyrics reminiscent of a school-girl’s diary, “Milk” sounds as if it could have come off the 10 Things I Hate About You soundtrack penned by Letters to Cleo. “Wall” has an ultra-catchy “ba-bah-da-da” vocal hook and the great line: “Why are you asking permission to be doing what it’s clear that you have already done.”

If the “band” sounds familiar, yes, it is largely the Coming Grass, dominated by the electric guitars of Nate Schrock and Stephan Jones, the drums of Ginger Cote, and pianos by Paul Chamberlain. The Jerks’ Carter Logan even makes appearances on the fiddle, of all things. Add backup vocals from Darien Brahms on a few songs and the line-up doesn’t look too different from a certain other female-vocalist’s recent solo album, Green Valentine. And, sure, there are similar sounds here — coming from what I guess you could consider Portland’s emerging “session musicians,” but, like Valentine, Cox’s Arrive is unmistakably driven by the lead vocalist and songwriter.

Where Brahms led with her sass and new-found bravado, melding honky-tonk with jazz and Latin flavors — and having a ton of fun — Cox leads with her money voice, sculpted to evoke a dainty girl and strong-armed woman, a nurturing mom and an independent gal.

“Look Up” is the whole package. It opens with a simple lead on the congas, a percussion instrument I’ve never really been that fond of in Western music, but here it works. Or perhaps Cox’s voice is just so good here that they could be pounding on a dumpster and I’d be happy. I remember standing next to Nate during the show at SPACE where Cox first played this live. He was entranced like a 16-year-old hippy girl seeing Trey in the flesh for the first time. We both agreed it was a phenomenal song. But think about that. By that point he’d probably heard her rehearse it a hundred times. Still, he couldn’t contain his inner fan.

When Cox reaches up for the falsetto chorus, it’s a bona fide religious experience. “And the sky still glows even though you’re looking at your feet/ Kicking down at the ground.” Darien’s singing backup here, really grounding the harmonies. And what a song of hope tempered with realism: “No one’s gonna reach in and grab you/ The world’s just going to keep spinning round.” Unless you get up off your sorry ass and do something about it. Otherwise, “One day, you’ll wake up to be 40/ 40 years of shutting down.”

Not that Cox needs a band to prop her up. “Confession #87” is stripped down and shows that she has no problem convincing with just a guitar and her remarkable voice. The lyrics are an interesting half-feminist screed: “I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but most days I can’t tie my shoes/ And most days I can hardly choose/ I confess, I do need you/ Does that make me not independent?”

An interesting question that. Being independent is this lauded trait in “strong” women. But what’s wrong with loving someone to the point that you can’t imagine life without them? Isn’t there a depth of emotion there that’s enviable?

I love the sarcasm laden in the repeated phrase, “well now girls, we’re independent.” Paired with “Devotion” and “Single Girl” (where we’re asked “have you noticed that most things come in pairs?”) there is a pattern of deep-seated familial love broadcast through a picture of what life might be like without the devoted husband and kids. Could be I’m a sucker for that sort of thing right now.

Oh, and there’s flexibility here, too. How about “Stir the Waters,” a “Watching the Detectives” rhythm paired with an “Octopus’s Garden” chord progression in the chorus. The first listen on this one is a little strange — talk about white man’s reggae — but it really grows with repeated listens. It’s super smooth, has Cox singing at some of her lowest on the record (echoed by a falsetto of herself, in impressive fashion) and all these crazy four-note electric fills.

This is where you recognize that Cox’s musicality is being repeatedly emphasized by Nate Schrock’s growing talents as producer. The levels are just completely on, and everything hovers in the background behind Sara, as though thrown into shadow by the light she casts. And there’s always an egg-rattle finish, or tossed-off cymbal, or rumbling, tuning instruments as intro keeping each song from sounding too polished. Check the effect on Chamberlain’s piano for “Paper Cup.” It’s like a ghost, fuzzy at the edges, halting, disinterested. The only choice I might argue with is the brief echoing added to lines in Cox’s fine a capella version of Richard Buckner’s “Fater,” which precedes “Arrive.” A song that aims for purity seems just that bit marred. Maybe that’s the intention.

By the time “Arrive” does come, it’s simple, familiar, climbing four chords are a fond farewell. “I hate it when you’re gone/Don’t go.” I’m not going anywhere.

Ray LaMontagne: Till The Sun Turns Black

Fade to Black

All roads lead back to Ray LaMontagne

Ray LaMontagne is a pretty funny guy. But it’s a subtle humor. Take the 2003 show at the Center for Cultural Exchange (may it RIP), where he gave the crowd a big explanation about how he was working on a tune for Sesame Street.

Would we like to hear it? God, yes, the 75 people in attendance implored. Already he could do virtually no wrong. So, he started to play, reading the lyrics from a legal pad next to him.

“I hate,” he sang, “my fucking job.”

If we were eating out of his hand after a song or two, at this point we probably would have donated to his kids’ college fund.

Which is what LaMontagne’s well on his way to making an afterthought as he releases his second RCA album, following sales of 300,000 copies of his Trouble and more than two straight years of touring the world. Nose to the grindstone, he’s thousands of miles from his wife and family as he tries to make his nut.

If only, after hearing Till the Sun Turns Black, it didn’t seem so much like he hated his fucking job.

A brilliant and moving disc, this new album is charged with a pathos that can’t be an act. LaMontagne is an old soul ill-fit for our modern world, just a few years removed from living off the grid, when the demands of touring forced his family to move closer to society and things like cable television. Planes, security, Guster’s hippy fans, Japanese society—these are the things that leave LaMontagne wondering: “Will I always feel this way / So empty and so estranged?”

That’s the chorus from “Empty,” the album’s second track and a wonderfully shuffling sad cowboy tune (and the only previously released track, having shown up on last year’s Live From Bonnaroo EP). A cello and violin open (there are strings on most every song here, thanks to the production of LaMontagne’s right-hand man, Ethan Johns), then come in a perfectly paired rhythm section of brushed drums and walking stand-up bass. The lyrics are the kind of writing that has made LaMontagne a star, paired with his delivery, an aching exhalation like he’s ripping his chest open in front of you. It feels like gospel, and I don’t mean the musical genre: “I looked my demons in the eyes, said do your best, destroy me / I’ve been to hell and back so many times I must admit you kind of bore me / There’s a lot of ways to kill a man / There’s a lot of ways to die … There’s a lot of things I don’t understand / Why so many people lie.”

Is he a folk-slinging Cobain? Destined to only get more depressed and disappointed by the prospect of getting everything he every wanted?

With LaMontagne, it’s a lot simpler than the pressures of oncoming fame. Rather, I think he’s just homesick, writing songs on the road that come from emotions that would exist even if every flight was first class and every security check came with a red carpet.

The album’s single, “Three More Days,” couldn’t be simpler. The only real rocker here, it’s a Motown send-up, late-career Ray Charles (his namesake), full of big horns putting LaMontagne forward as bandleader and Southern rock guitar that should remind you of last album’s “How Come.”

And the sentiment is just as simple. “Three more days, girl you know I’ll be comin’ home to you darlin,’” LaMontagne emotes at his most impassioned. He’s contrite – “I know it’s wrong to be so far from home” – but he’s practical: “I just gotta get this good job done / So I can bring it on home to you.”

Elsewhere, things are not so cut and dry. The production, Johns playing many of the instruments, often seems unnecessary, like the music that intrudes into movies, telling you how you’re supposed to feel when it ought to be obvious. “Can I Stay,” with a bit of demo-like hiss, is heartbreaking on its own, LaMontange imploring, “Can I stay here with you till the morning / There’s nothing I’d like more than to wake up on your floor.” But his naked emotion is dressed up in descending string progressions.

Similarly, the ukelele (or some other odd-sounding deviation on a guitar) in “Gone Away From Me” makes what could be a distinctive rhythm sound exactly like Hans Zimmer’s instrumental theme to True Romance (full disclosure: My wife called that).

It’s hard not to wonder whether Johns hasn’t become more LaMontagne band member than producer, in a way forsaking the producer’s role of making hard decisions about when too much is just too much. Ray’s a charismatic guy. He wouldn’t be the first to try to make him happy.

Can that be done? You wouldn’t know it from LaMontagne’s first two albums. And though I’m not here to say it’s his job to blow sunshine up your ass, it’s hard not to feel like this album is, yes, blacker than the first. Trouble’s “Hannah,” “Jolene,” and “Shelter” somehow had a hope that’s largely missing here. The title track alone, where LaMontagne picks apart our social structure and finds even the wise man’s lot ultimately hopeless, should be enough to get you reaching for the whiskey.

Still, there is the album’s finisher, “Within You,” that acts as an uplifting coda in the way that “Her Majesty” rejects the irony and bombast of Abbey Road. Built on a gentle strum, with a tambourine for rhythm, LaMontange meditates on a single couplet for about five minutes. “War is not the answer,” he breathes, his vocals as high as Iron & Wine, “The answer is within you.”

Is this politics, or is this a simple acknowledgement that sometimes you just have to take life as it comes? Well, as Wilco sang, when “it’s a war on war / You’re gonna lose.” And I think LaMontagne would agree that “you have to learn how to die.”