Bursting Through: Lissie, October 16 at the Redstone Room Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 07 October 2010 05:21
Lissie. Photo by Valerie Phillips.

(Note: This show was canceled on October 14 and will be rescheduled.)

When Rock Island native Lissie Maurus performed in the Quad Cities in November, she had just released the EP Why You Runnin’, and it seemed to promise that more aching folk would follow.

Three of the EP’s five songs (“Little Lovin’,” “Everywhere I Go,” and “Oh Mississippi”) made the cut on the full-length Catching a Tiger, but only the first of those – with its escalating, building soul – foreshadowed her album’s stunning pop path.

There’s no doubt that Lissie is a strong singer, with a throaty voice full of color and conviction and frayed around the edges. But good folk music requires sterling wordplay, and I worried that Maurus might not yet have the songwriting chops to carry a record of lightly adorned songs, even with her considerable pipes.

So Catching a Tiger – released in August – is a major and welcome surprise. A handful of producers and co-writers developed tracks around Maurus’ voice, and she takes flight within the dynamic tunes. I heard Cat Power and Neko Case in the spare arrangement of her EP, but Catching a Tiger finds her in the smartly fleshed-out company of Tori Amos and Fiona Apple; the aural richness augments and supports fundamentally strong material.

Lead track “Record Collector” sets the tone with shards of percussion and an underlying drone at the outset, and from there it builds to robust instrumentation, collapses, and then accelerates to a galloping climax that’s quickly abandoned in favor of a more sustainable tempo.

Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, Tom Waits) produced that song and four others on Catching a Tiger, and his touch is particularly deft, mixing unapologetic accessibility with oddball flourishes, from that Waits-ian clanking percussion of “Record Collector” to the electronic foundation of “Worried About,” with its disturbing breathing-machine effect. In both, Maurus’ vocals strike a balance between the technical and emotional requirements of the songs. (Just try to sing the charmingly artless lyrics “For the last four years of the life / I’ve thought about you / Pretty much every 15 seconds” while conveying the appropriate obsession.)

King also produced the album’s version of “Look Away.” The song in a 2008 Daytrotter.com session was guitar and fatigued voice, with a de-fanged growl at its center. On Catching a Tiger, he transforms it into a sparkling alien dreamworld, with the growl all confidently restrained sexiness, and a hint of defiance in the chorus.

'Catching a Tiger'He nearly goes too far on “When I’m Alone,” which is pure and true big-voiced pop. Yet even scrubbed of her natural, expressive roughness, Lissie’s powerhouse voice steers the song far away from sterility.

Bill Reynolds of Band of Horses is adventurous in a different way, in his four tracks invoking everything from girl-group pop (“Stranger”) to naked balladry (“Bully”).

The diversity of styles makes Catching a Tiger feel a bit scattershot, and I certainly get the feeling that each song was crafted with a specific market in mind. The result is that the album feels nearly desperate – a debut designed to see what sticks with the buying public – at the expense of coherence.

Yet inferred crass intent doesn’t rob the individual songs, which no matter the musical setting let Lissie’s voice shine. If producers manhandled her a bit on Catching a Tiger, her singing still bursts through.

It’s telling that when Lissie tackles “Bad Romance” (not on the album), she invests it with heart and dysfunction and truth that Lady Gaga could scarcely imagine. Lissie accomplishes a similar feat with Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters”, elevating the earnest cheese. These are partly functions of straightforward, organic live arrangements, but most of the heavy lifting is done by that amazing voice.

These songs show that Lissie could front the world’s greatest cover band. Thankfully, as Catching a Tiger amply demonstrates, that’s not necessary.

Lissie will perform at the Redstone Room on Saturday, October 16, with opener Dylan LeBlanc. The show starts at 8:30 p.m. Tickets ($12 advance, $15 the day of the show) are available from RedstoneRoom.com.

For more information on Lissie, visit Lissie.com.

For a 2009 interview with Lissie, visit RCReader.com/y/lissie.


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