Singer-songwriter Rae Fitzgerald’s recent release Popular Songs for Wholesome Families is a diverse collection of songs strung together with meaningful lyrics and Fitzgerald’s beautiful voice. The instrumentation varies from raw acoustic guitar to spacey synth effects, but the beauty of Fitzgerald’s work remains.
Fitzgerald’s voice is strong and powerful. There exists no wispiness or wavering. Her voice is similar to Sara Bareilles’ beautiful voice. Each song opens with Fitzgerald’s voice and typically just one instrument, like an acoustic guitar or drum. Fitzgerald’s voice is the anchor to her album, the anchor from which her lyrics soar.
My favorite aspect of Popular Songs for Wholesome Families is the particularly honest lyrics. Fitzgerald covers topics like drug addiction, American privilege, and bad parents that you can’t help loving. The way she goes about covering such real topics with lyrics like “The future is just a pill that you take / to get through the day” (“Tower”) is brilliant. Fitzgerald is able to tackle authentic issues with haunting lyrics that don’t employ cliches. Think Margot & The Nuclear So and Sos, particularly “Broadripple is Burning.”
“Dark Man” is one of the best examples of her eerily realistic lyrics. The track opens with the acoustic guitar, and after a few measures, Fitzgerald’s voice enters in. The chorus begins with “How did I get to the place that I call home?”; it seems that’s the question the whole song is looking to answer. What’s the relationship between one’s upbringing and the final result? The repeated lyric “My mother raised us kids Christians / and no we’re tattooed pagans” works as further exposition on the topic. At first, the title of the track “Dark Man” seems odd, but then we reach the lyric, “My father was a very dark man / and that dark man was my best friend.” That very poignant lyric puts its finger on a common situation: you know your father’s lifestyle isn’t healthy, but because he’s your father, you love him anyway. Fitzgerald expands upon this topic of unfatherly fathers later in “Magic Town.”
I could go on for pages raving about Rae Fitzgerald’s beautiful voice and substantive lyrics, but for now I will leave you with one of my favorite lyrics from “Earth, Everything”: “Welcome to earth / everything hurts.” Needless to say, Popular Songs for Wholesome Families is quite the ironic album title.–Krisann Janowitz
Genre names exist to quickly allow someone to identify whether they’ll be interested in a band. But the baggage they carry is conflicted: saying “acoustic pop” can clue in fans of John Mayer and Jenny & Tyler—and there’s a chasm between the two artists’ sounds. There’s an ocean between their ideologies, too, and that complicates things. Then comes the imported freight: “Acoustic pop” has become synonymous with the radio-created “genre” of Adult Contemporary (Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, James Blunt, Sara Bareilles). All of these things can be classified as acoustic pop.
Folk is even worse. Folk music, according to Ronald D. Cohen in Folk Music: The Basics, is “old songs, with no known composers.” However, American folk music has a distinct style and sound, as compiled by the Lomaxes. Indie-kids adopted this history through appropriation, and we ended up in a situation where “American folk” is immediately associated with Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes (one of whom is from England, and the which chose a name because it sounded English). And they don’t play folk covers, anyway.
So please bear with me; it’s genuinely difficult to explain what Bowerbirds‘ The Clearing sounds like. Our en vogue musical terms offer me little to explain how their incredibly moving music actually sounds. There’s chamber-pop, but this isn’t sterilized like Andrew Bird. There’s orchestral-folk, but this isn’t characterized by its arrangements—even if they do make beautiful use of strings on opener and single “Tuck the Darkness In.” There’s singer/songwriter, but the Bowerbirds’ sound is made of two equal partners and a full instrumental range; this is a true collaborative effort. But enough hedging and complaining about what it is not. I’ve shot around the subject enough that perhaps you’ll be able to put together a composite after this statement:
The Clearing is a wide, sweeping, gorgeous palette that externalizes intimate, difficult emotions through atypical song structures and beautiful melodies.
The main instruments are piano and guitar, but distorted synths provide the highlight of “In the Yard” and organ is the critical sound in “This Year.” “Overcome With Light” is the only song that even sounds remotely close to something that could be canonized and in 100 years be a song without author; its glorious, stately majesty becomes the core of the album, because it encapsulates the emotion that the album is trying to build out. The world is a difficult place, full of tension and struggle; but even though that, there is beauty, and wonder, and worth.
The divide between high art and low art is a complex question that deserves its own post, but this piece resonated with me on one point that the author thinks defines “high art” (and I think defines “good art,” which are not the same): “Complexity of the responses to the works’ emotions, which sometimes have no name.” Saying that The Clearing is a beautiful orchestral-folk album is not only potentially confusing, it’s selling the album short in numerous ways. There’s no easy handle for what this music sounds like to me nor what it conjures up in me, and that’s good. There’s a unique vision here that transcends my pre-formatted ideas to confine it, and that’s what the best art forces me to do: I have to hear and think in different ways, albeit slight, to process and inhabit the piece. (And even slight change is significant in our era of filtering out what we dislike by removing it from our social feeds.)
The Clearing is immediately accessible in some ways: “Tuck the Darkness In” is deeply affecting from the first listen. The rest of the album unfolds its joys in multiple listens; I would recommend that you stick around for those as well.
Valerie Nicole’s lead track on her album From the Heart is “Misunderstood,” a mood-heavy, piano-driven singer/songwriter piece that fits in nicely with the Fiona Apple/Sara Bareilles school of songwriting. The kiss-off lyrics are straightforward and punchy, delivered nicely by her dusky voice. The band fills out the sound well, with the bassist delivering some particularly memorable work. The song is a mature and filled-out piece of work, and an excellent kick-off to the album.
Unfortunately, nothing else on the album comes close to reaching the level of quality that “Misunderstood” sets as the standard. Valerie Nicole plays guitar as well as piano, but she plays piano with much more gravitas. Her guitar work is jangly, upbeat and beach-inflected rhythmically. This bubblegum pop sound is dramatically different than the mature, moody sound created on “Misunderstood.”
The bubblegum is what sticks for the majority of the album, resulting in a serious headscratcher for this critic. She clearly identified her best track, placed it first on the album, and then wrote a whole bunch of songs that have nothing to do with the first track to back it up. Even when she returns to piano for tunes like “Meant to Be” and “From the Heart,” the bubbly mood is retained instead of the strong, mature one.
From the Heart sets up a promise that it doesn’t even try to keep with the excellent “Misunderstood.” I hope that future releases from Valerie Nicole see her streamlining her approach and focusing on moods that are less disparate.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.