Monday, May 2, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #153 - Amy Rigby – 18 Again

Have you heard of Amy Rigby? If so, you’re in a rare 1% - probably less, actually - of discerning rock music listeners of the late 1990s. If not, welcome to her world of relationships gone sour, mod housewives, chronic underemployment, the travails of aging and motherhood, and bookstore crushes. Rigby, born in Pittsburgh before relocating to New York City as a teenager, married and had a daughter with dB’s drummer Will Rigby, played in a couple bands (The Last Roundup, The Shams) that got some notice, divorced, and eventually remarried singer-songwriter Wreckless Eric, with whom she now lives in upstate New York. I mention this data because this feeds directly into what she does with her music and how she makes it. From the liner notes of her own acclaimed but little-heard solo debut album Diary of a Mod Housewife Rigby puts it this way: "I've been a mod housewife since 1993, when I decided I was not going to get down on my hands and knees and scrub the bathroom floor unless I could get up on stage and sing about it. I didn't want to fight about sex and laundry with my husband unless I could turn it into a song. Somehow going to work at a crappy job made more sense if I could look at it as... research. Oh, I'd played music for years, but that was with friends, for fun. This was sanity."

She recorded three albums for Koch Records in the wake of her divorce with Will Rigby – Diary of a Mod Housewife (1996), Middlescence (1998), and The Sugar Tree (2000) – all which are currently out of print, and have been collapsed to this handy guide that pulls just about evenly from all three. It was released when they were in print with a notice on the cover to trumpet a new song and alternate version contained within – both excellent – as bait to get you to buy these 18 songs again, but it’s now most valuable for being the primary artifact available containing music from that era. Back then, she was inaccurately tagged as alt-country, and while it’s true that she copped from country tunes as much as anyone – a favorite set of lyrics of hers goes: “Summertime in 83, the last time I took LSD/ listening to Patsy Cline and Skeeter Davis really blew my mind” – she’s only alt-country by association. She likes the storytelling and the harmonies sure, but her bag of tricks (and her gift for lyrics) is way bigger than most songwriters coming from country or folk, or just about anywhere really. With her strong voice – as plain and natural, expressive and unhistrionic as Bill Withers, but like him observing the everyday in her songs, though for a very different time and mindset – she bounces from the faux-lounge number “Cynically Yours” to copping Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” for her own “20 Questions” to the jazzy tune about being an accessory to murder “Keep It To Yourself” to waxing Beatles-esque about family life on “What I Need” to rocking out all over the place, often aided by crafty production from Eliot Easton of The Cars.

If you’ve never heard her, start right now by checking out “Cynically Yours” – probably the funniest song she’s yet written (though, honestly, there’s a lot of competition). It’s the real bait to hook you in to the album nowadays with those other albums gone, all 3:15 of it. But it’s more than just funny, it skewers the dysfunctional romantic malaise of many smart young people in love. And it’s also nice to see her recognizing and desiring to outgrow that cynicism in “Time for Me to Come Down,” where she’s learning how to get out of her protective emotional shell. And if for some reason “Cynically Yours” doesn’t grab you, try the next cut, the shoulda-been-a-hit “Beer and Kisses,” one of the reasons people think of her as country-related. A chorus that goes “Get home from work, put on the light,” (and in a later verse, ‘get in a fight’) “sit on the couch, spend the whole night there” is aimed straight at the heart of the middle class, but spun with a touch of wit that most mainstream singers rarely risk in their songs except as the climax of a tune. Poppier writers tend to hinge their songs on one line as good as that, but like John Prine, who she resembles in a few ways, Rigby’s songs are teeming with lyrics that bring a smile to the lips even as she’s saying something real. But honestly you can start anywhere here, and why not right at the beginning? “All I Want” is Amy in a nutshell – she’s in love, her man’s not treating her as well as she deserves, and she’s gonna sing about it in a song less hopeful but every bit as ambivalent take on romance as Joni Mitchell’s song of the same title.

After her three records for Koch, Rigby switched labels and released two more great ones - Til the Wheels Fall Off (2003), which features delights like “Are We Ever Gonna Have Sex Again?” and the poignant “Don’t Ever Change” and “All the Way to Heaven,” and Little Fugitive (2005), home to the classic “Dancing With Joey Ramone,” plus her continued analysis of adult relationships with “The Trouble With Jeanie” (in which the trouble is that she really likes her ex’s new girlfriend a lot), “So Now You Know” and so forth. She married Wreckless Eric – a gifted singer and songwriter of no small wit himself – in 2008, followed shortly the release of the lo-fi Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby that same year, 2010’s all-covers Two-Way Family Favourites, and 2012’s A Working Museum, each of which (except the covers album of course) split songwriting between the two, and all currently out of print as well. And like her own solo works, each one of the albums (except the covers album maybe) is excellent and worth tracking down. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau said in his review of her fifth album, Little Fugitive: “It really is quite simple--no one of any gender or generation has written as many good songs in Rigby's realistic postfolk mode since she launched Diary of a Mod Housewife in 1996.” He’s right. You can’t step wrong with any album that’s got her name on the cover, but start here and then work your way out to the rest.
-         Patrick Brown

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