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Best Albums of 2011 Series: “The World Will Follow,” Andi Starr

16th November

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The first time I ever heard of Andi Starr was eight years ago when she emailed to ask if I would review her then-new album Me Beautiful, not because she felt assured that I would lavish it in praise, but specifically because I had just gotten done doing precisely the opposite to Jewel’s horrid 2003 album 0304. If you don’t recall that record, let me first say that I don’t blame you. And now let me remind you that it was the moment in that pop chameleon’s career when she took a stab at passing herself off as some literate Britney Spears, turning in live performances full of trashy clothes and quivering breasts packed into her push-up bra to pair with her stiletto heels and suggestive simper. The music was as substantive as the wardrobe, and the “artist’s” desperation was palpable as she stood at the cliff of her growing irrelevance.

In my review of that album, Starr seemed to have found a scorching critical flame against which to hold her work, and if it turned to ashes in the process, she made it clear that she was perfectly happy to accept that. To her credit, Starr, unlike 99.9% of bands who make their pleas to music bloggers, had actually bothered to read my blog and, even more to her credit, did not bother insisting on her greatness. She was more content to let her music do the talking and allow me to hear what it had to say on my terms, not hers. This was a courage I am yet to find in almost any other band that has emailed me in the eight years since.

The CD ended up in my mailbox days later (Yes, people still sent stuff in the mail back then, and yes, I am one of those prehistoric creatures who still prefers my music in the flesh). I popped the CD into my stereo with the same misgivings I have whenever I listen to music sent to me by a band who wants something from me–that it more likely would bore me than thrill me, that the CD would barely make it past track three before taking its place in my graveyard of albums almost interesting enough to listen to but not really. And that’s when Starr did something else that 99.9% of bands who email me never manage to do–she surprised me.

 

The album stunned me with a spareness and emotional honesty that yielded the kind of songs that call you by your name. At its most vulnerable (desolate tracks like “Elliott” or “Hush”) the album sounded like something recorded outside amid the eerie silence that accompanies the aftermath of a dizzying snowfall, where the ordinary noise of the world–a passing car, a bird–sounds like the only sign of life within a hundred miles of where you stand, but sign enough to get you through the cold night to come. Starr has dropped three EPs and four full-length records since then–this is an artist who works for what she’s after–and in retrospect, releases like the Supergirl EP or the full-length Leaving the White Line sound like blueprints for the fuller, more ambitious production that makes her newest record, The World Will Follow, play like the fruition of more than a decade of labor in the studio.

Starr’s latest disc opens with the wailing and full-bodied sound of the title track as she paints a portrait which, for an artist whose recording career began with the humble accoutrement of an 8-track in her living room, is undoubtedly drawn from personal experience–a dreamer subsisting on Top Ramen, crackers and toast while waiting for the world to catch on. “Do what you love and the world will follow,” Starr sings in a breathy voice as fragile as a spider’s web swinging in a breeze. Throughout the record, Starr’s vocals crack and fade into falsetto one second and boom with a kind of bawling earnestness the next. These songs are the restless tales and prayers of a performer who knows the desire of which she sings in all its depths and detours.

While prior albums for the most part seem committed to a particular mood–the spare atmospherics of Me Beautiful or the jaunty radiance of Supergirl–The World Will Follow roams a broader spectrum of attitudes. Tracks like “Little Bird” or “Ticket-Taker” keep their enthusiasms in check while others like “A Song that Never Dies” or “Happy Ballad” make their nods to a subtle brand of pop that Starr has honed into a sound wholly her own. Starr boasts her influences proudly throughout the record–the discerning listener can hear The Cranberries somewhere off in the distance of “Happy Ballad,” and “Already Gold” flirts with the ghost of Annie Lenox’s “Little Bird.” But Starr does not just pay homage to the bands that made her music possible; she brings some of their apostles to the party herself. Supertramp’s Jesse Seidenberg chimes in with some sweet lap steel here and there, while Jordan Richter, whose production credits include Sixpence None the Richer, lends some synth guitar to the mix.

And just when you think you’ve got Andi Starr figured out, here comes a trippy instrumental in “Water Rising” that keeps you on your guard with its goth-tinged echoes of psychedelia and new-wave. “Water Rising” suggests there may be a hell of a lot more to Andi Starr’s muse than she has let on thus far, and that there may be some fascinating experiments ahead.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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A Culturespill Flashback: Andi Starr’s “Me Beautiful”

30th April

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I step into the stale air of Barnes & Noble, where a logo and four-dollar cappuccino replaces the mug and first-name basis of the local coffee house. The store flanks a highway choked with the obnoxious and insistent neon glow of corporate excess. An enormous Best Buy sign juts out with blinding hues of yellow and blue; the golden arches of McDonald’s glimmer over the road. Another Longhorn steakhouse announces itself amid a vast island of blacktop carved up by bold white lines; the ground stained with oil of Fords, Hondas, Buicks and SUVs. This is the new scenery down in Stuart, Florida — one of the fastest growing towns in America. Where there were dirt roads, there are traffic lights. Where there were fruit stands, there is Walmart, Petco, Wendy’s. Ten years ago you could drive through this town without passing a single car.

I did not come here for a four-dollar cappuccino; nor am I interested in a grande soy vanilla latte, thank you. I am here for the music. Specifically, Live at Benaroya Hall, a two-disc unplugged set by Pearl Jam featuring a vicious and timely rendition of Dylan’s “Masters of War.” “Come you masters of war,” Eddie Vedder bellows, his haunted voice poised to burst through the Ozone, “you that build all the guns/you that build the death planes/you that build all the bombs.”

Most of my fellow shoppers, though, are not exactly clamoring for the “P” section. It is 2004, and Mike, my friend behind the counter, tells me that Ashlee Simpson’s “debut album” (how loosely we Americans have come to use these terms) just became the store’s #1 best seller. The “record,” as it is being called, was released just hours ago. “You know, she already had her own TV show before ever making an album,” Mike says, “meanwhile, Pearl Jam gathers dust on the shelf.” But after driving through a wilderness of advertising and corporate glitter on my way to work each morning, Mike’s revelation is hardly an astonishment. So I wipe the dust off my copy, toss a crumpled receipt in the trash by the door, and dart for my car stereo, Circuit City’s crimson insignia glowering from across the street.

But even Vedder and his taut guitar duo of McCreedy and Ament do not prepare me for the allures of Andi Starr, whose album, Me Beautiful, waits for me in my mailbox. No, Ms. Starr does not have any sisters on TV, and you probably haven’t heard of her. Starr, a local singer/songwriter from Oregon promoted by her manager/husband, writes great songs and prefers to keep her clothes on, if you please. The album, Starr’s second, offers neither Gwen Stefani’s navel nor Britney Spears’ latest hair color. No wonder I don’t see her photo next to Ashlee Simpson’s in Barnes & Noble display windows.

Nor is it any surprise to hear Starr singing “hold a mirror up to your soul/not your face/up to your heart.” As the opening track’s patient crescendo of piano, guitar and drums blooms into a soundscape entirely her own, I quickly understand that Starr’s songs cut deeper than flesh, further than bone. “I would crawl inside of you,” she croons amid “Little Angel’s” hushed ambiance, “to find the room that is dark.” But Starr, who confesses to a terror of performing and “being seen,” is a bit modest. There is nothing conditional about it: these songs do crawl inside of you, and as the biographical note on her Web site asserts, “If Andi’s music doesn’t follow you, haunt you, comfort you, awaken you, challenge you, inspire you, then you’re simply not listening.”

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Andi Starr hits the right notes: the notes that hurt, the notes that know you, the notes that make you meet yourself. If glass had a voice it would sing like this woman. Fragile and clean, listening to her vocals is like peeking through the wiped window of an abandoned house. It is dark inside but you look a little harder, you want to know what’s in there. Gradually you begin to discern the silhouette of a coffee stand, the impression of a light switch, the beveled edges of a mirror. You can almost make out the angles where walls come together to form the corners of the room.

The brilliance of Starr’s work — truly a refreshing experience — is in its refusal to flip the light on. Me Beautiful never exposes more than shapes and shadows strewn about its dimly lit landscape of sound. Songs like “Wash Away,” with its gentle and surprising gust of mandolin and percussion, allow listeners to imagine and participate where so many of her more renowned contemporaries condescend and overindulge. The structured harmonies of many of these songs are as taut as any radio single without compromising the artist’s integrity.

Starr’s voice and lyrics plead with the past: the bruises of its memories and the dreams of its pleasures. Yet, for all the album’s complicated emotions and ideas, Starr herself seems to put it best in the end: “it’s simpler than we make it out to be/yeah it’s simpler than we make it out to be.” This may or may not be true of life, but it certainly speaks accurately for the music. That is precisely the thing that cannot be said of so much product hurled upon the masses by many of pop music’s female singer/songwriters. Andi Starr is new because her music is a familiar echo of the roots that made it possible: from Joni Mitchell and Cindy Lauper on down to Julie Miller and Aimee Mann. Starr’s voice combines the earnestness and intensity of this eclectic heritage into one cohesive force. One can only hope that it will soon be a force of change and influence.