"Go," the opening track on Indigo Girls' new album, "Come On Now Social" (Epic), has a fulsome new sound--electric-guitar-driven alt-rock more reminiscent of the Breeders and R.E.M.--but a familiar sense of encouragement rooted in personal history. After paying homage to a suffragette grandmother whose brave but lonely battles ultimately changed her options, Amy Ray looks to enlist new warriors of conscience.
"Raise your hands high/ Don't take a seat/ Don't stand aside/ This time don't assume anything," Ray sings passionately in this electric call to action. "I know the kids are still upsetters/ 'cause rock is cool but the struggle is better/ Go! Go! Go!"
Ray and partner Emily Saliers, who perform at the Patriot Center Friday, finally have a rousing anthem to underscore their long history of social commitment and political action, but there's nothing didactic about their approach to such issues on the duo's seventh studio album.
That's true even of its most overtly political song, "Faye Tucker." It's a stark, Steve Earle-styled discourse on convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucker, who last year became the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War. The song addresses the issue of the death penalty and Tucker's own complicity in the situation, as well as the media circus that enveloped efforts to commute Tucker's sentence.
"If you live, they gonna make you a campaigner/ If you die, they gonna make you a grave," Ray declaims starkly. "Either way it goes down/ Well your life's not your own/ And that's why killin' don't pay."
Elsewhere, "Trouble" suggests a world full of tension and meanness, including hate crimes ("When the clergy take a vote all the gays will pay again/ 'cause there's more than one kind of criminal white collar") that must give way to a more enlightened mind-set. Or, as Saliers sings, "One day the war will stop and we'll grow a peaceful crop/ And a girl can get a wife and we can bring you back to life."
While Indigo Girls have sometimes been dismissed as lightweight--sonically, that is--the new album serves up plenty of wallop, including the grinding, rough-hewn punk of "Compromise," featuring bassist Me'Shell NdegeOcello and drummer Kate Schellenbach of Luscious Jackson.
There's an exhausted edginess to "Cold Beer and Remote Control," a blue-collar plaint in which Saliers catalogues her isolation, bad job and soulless environment, while "Gone Again," featuring the Band's Garth Hudson and Rick Danko, is jaunty busker-pop that masks a bittersweet tale of restlessness and separation.
Though there are some stellar guests on "Come On Now Social"--Sheryl Crow and Joan Osborne contribute background vocals on several tracks--the bulk of the album is built around the British band Ghostland, which backed Sinead O'Connor on last year's Lilith Fair tour. Featuring drummer John Reynolds (who co-produced this album), cellist Caroline Dale, bassist Clare Kenny and keyboardist Carol Issacs, it adds subtle textures to the duo's more familiar folk-rock stylings and personal meditations.
Among the soft-spun highlights: Saliers's fragile "Soon to Be Nothing," which explores the aching vulnerability of the still-committed partner in a dissolving relationship; Ray's "Sister," a wistful trip-folk testimonial to trust and compassion; and "Andy," the melancholy tale of a young woman who pines for a farm boy who, in turns, obliviously pines for another.
"Ozilline," Ray's Appalachian-flavored tribute to her grandmother Ozilline Walker, is moving testimony to the wisdom of elders and their indomitable spirit in the face of time's inexorable debilitations: "Ozilline, she don't let you cry/ If you ask where it hurts/ she says 'What a blessed sky!' "
This is not the only instance where blessings count--the album has several upbeat anthems of community, companionship and commitment. "We Are Together" is exhilarating acknowledgment of love found after long disconnection ("Though I said I did not care/ it was way before we'd gotten there/ winded by the fruitless chase/ until I saw you face to face").
And "Peace Tonight" is a charming, spirited ode to emotional communion. Built on a New Orleans-style horn section that gives it a swaying Southern pulse with just a dash of Cajun spice, the song celebrates love without limits and when Saliers and Ray sing, "Love's been planted and we're checking out the yield," you'll believe their hearts reap exactly what they sow.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8161.)
There's also some moving social commentary on "Breakdown" (Island), Melissa Etheridge's first album in almost four years. "Scarecrow"--with smudges of guitar riding over taut bass and drum rhythms--is about Matthew Shepard, the young gay man murdered last year in Wyoming, left to die tied to a barbed-wire fence. Admitting that "I can't forget hard as I try/ that silhouette against the sky," Etheridge attacks the climate of fear and hate that leads to such tragedy: "Showers of your crimson blood/ seep into a nation calling up a flood/ of narrow minds who legislate/ thinly veiled intolerance, bigotry and hate."
There are antidotes, of course, and Etheridge, who performs at Constitution Hall Oct. 25, offers several on the inspirational "Truth of the Heart," which sounds like compassionate counsel to the two young children she has with life-partner Julie Cypher. "Yes there is danger and there are shadows/ and there is fear inside the dark/ It has powered countries and borne religions," Etheridge warns. But, she insists, there are ways out: "Deep down inside, I think we're all the same/ Try not to judge someone and never shame/ I do believe that people are good/ They just want hope and respect/ and to be understood."
The new album travels in several directions--the edgy anger of "Mama I'm Strange," the spiritual yearning of "Angels Would Fall"--but its central concerns are matters of the heart, and the joys and sorrows inherent there. The space between is explored in the title track, where even a bitter breakup can't eliminate ongoing love and concern in a time of need. "I'm doing fine all alone," Etheridge insists, but "it only takes one call . . . I'm driving and crying/ unraveled and flying/ I'm coming to your breakdown tonight."
There are other bittersweet narratives: the rootsy "Stronger Than Me," in which Etheridge concedes, "I'm tired of this war/ I don't want to fight no more"; "Enough of Me," a weary catalogue of frustrations that come from losing oneself in another ("I loved you past the point of dying/ Ain't that enough of me for you?"); and "How Would I Know," which captures the anxiety of a crumbling relationship.
The album ends with two beautiful testimonials to the heart's healing power. "My Lover," a stark slice of pop electronica spiced with electric guitar and pedal steel, is supple celebration of the richness of a lasting relationship: "No one conceals me like/ no one reveals me like/ my lover," Etheridge confesses.
As for the closing "Sleep," it's a lovely testament to contented commitment and the sense of safety at the heart of all lasting relationships. "I want to lay down on your shoulder/ just inside your arm/ I want to listen to your heartbeat/ and your breathing on and on/ . . . surrender to your peace/ and go to sleep." And wake up loved.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8162.)