Rude Girl/Oh Boy
No one ever picked up a Janis Ian disc with hopes of getting the party started -- at least no one who wasn't severely depressed to begin with. "Billie's Bones" is her latest collection of whispered meditations, sparsely arranged and often hauntingly sad and subdued.
In fact, save for "Marching on Glasgow," a reeling instrumental interlude, the tunes on "Billie's Bones" reflect Ian's knack for composing confessional ballads and quietly evocative portraits. This time around she salutes two singers, one dead and one living, with ballads that are unmistakably heartfelt. The CD's title track pays homage to Billie Holiday from the perspective of a lifelong disciple moved by her art and pain: "I would tell her how I've yearned / To be worthy of the grail / All these years and all I've learned / Is just how brilliantly I fail." The inspiration for "Mary's Eyes" is Irish vocalist Mary Black, and it's a song that one would love to hear Black herself sing if it were about someone else. "We are singing of the Troubles and a fire in the land . . . / And I wonder as I hear her / That the spirit still shines through / And she can reach across the ocean deep / And break my heart in two." Another ballad, "Matthew," recalls the murder of Matthew Shepard through a series of still unanswered questions: "Who did he harm, what was the crime? / Did he walk too lightly, did he seem too shy?"
There are notable cameos here, too. Dolly Parton adds plaintive harmonies on "My Tennessee Hills," while "I Hear You Sing Again" finds Ian resurrecting and completing an old Woody Guthrie lyric. "Billie's Bones" certainly won't rattle yours, but it may move you just the same.
-- Mike Joyce
Appearing Friday at Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis and Saturday at the Birchmere. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Janis Ian, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8123. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)