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.”
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.