New Al­bums

Philadel­phia song­writer’s sec­ond LP is full of in­ven­tive gui­tar jams and raw vo­cal emo­tion. By Stephen Deusner

UNCUT - - Contents -

In­clud­ing: Rosali, Jeff Tweedy, The Good, The Bad & The Queen, Amy Rigby, Wil­lard Grant Con­spir­acy

When Rosali Mid­dle­man was writ­ing songs for her sec­ond solo al­bum, she lived in an apartment next to noisy rail­road tracks. At first the sound of pass­ing freights was deaf­en­ing, es­pe­cially when she was try­ing to work out melodies and lyrics. “I write very im­pro­vi­sa­tion­ally and in­tu­itively, and I record ev­ery­thing,” says the Philadel­phia-based singer­song­writer. “I love the sound of trains and ev­ery­thing they rep­re­sent, but it was right out­side my bed­room win­dow, this loud sound of screech­ing brakes.” While it dis­rupted her song­writ­ing, even­tu­ally she grew to ap­pre­ci­ate that un­pre­dictable racket, which in­spired, in a round­about way, the chug­ging gui­tars and per­sis­tent rolling tempo of the psy­che­delic num­ber “Rise To Fall”.

The song is a show­case for her nim­ble back­ing band, which in­cludes mem­bers of The War On Drugs, Purl­ing hiss and other Philadel­phia acts, but mostly it’s a show­case for Mid­dle­man her­self, for her subtly in­ven­tive gui­tar play­ing, for her un­der­stated vo­cals, and for her elu­sive song­writ­ing, which ze­roes in on a lover so ob­ses­sively that it takes on the un­stop­pable power of a lo­co­mo­tive. “There’s no-one above you, no-one be­low,” she sings. “Feel­ing alarmed, feel­ing alarmed.” “Rise To Fall” re­veals a singer­song­writer who gives am­ple time over to lengthy gui­tar jams, let­ting her songs sprawl be­yond the words she’s writ­ten. Or per­haps it’s the other way around: per­haps Mid­dle­man is an in­stru­men­tal­ist first, an ad­ven­tur­ous player who ratch­ets her jams to care­fully con­structed, yet still im­pres­sion­is­tic songs.

Trou­ble Any­way is only Mid­dle­man’s sec­ond al­bum. Orig­i­nally from Michi­gan, she went to col­lege in Min­nesota and worked as a dairy farmer in Ver­mont be­fore mov­ing to Philadel­phia 12 years ago. Since then she has spent time in a num­ber of lo­cal bands, first as one half of the duo Blood Like Mine and later as one-third of the power-punk trio the Long hots and the im­pro­vi­sa­tional su­per­group Wan­der­ing Shade [see side panel, p14]. Those var­i­ous acts have al­lowed her to hone her chops in a range of roles: as a solo artist, as a sup­port­ing player, as a col­lab­o­ra­tor, as an im­pro­viser. All of that came to play on her solo de­but, Out Of Love, which made Uncut’s list of top al­bums for 2016. De­vised with Ger­hardt Ko­erner of the Lilys, it fea­tured a lo-fi, pre­dom­i­nantly

acous­tic pal­ette in which Mid­dle­man’s gui­tar play­ing could stretch out and take on dif­fer­ent sounds and forms. The mu­sic was cere­bral, but the songs were any­thing but. She wrung max­i­mum emo­tion out of her lyrics, thanks to a voice that was both dead­pan and soul­ful, vul­ner­a­ble and de­ter­mined. She came across as an artist per­ma­nently steel­ing her­self against bad news.

Trou­ble Any­way am­pli­fies all of those qual­i­ties. The ar­range­ments are lusher and less lonely, more de­tailed and more open to im­pro­vi­sa­tion. They sound spon­ta­neous, as though th­ese record­ings cap­ture only one it­er­a­tion out of in­fi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties. Noth­ing is set­tled on songs like the lan­guid epic “Sil­ver Eyes” or the starry-sky shuf­fle “Who’s To Say”. The mu­sic slips eas­ily from ur­ban indie-rock to coun­try-tinged folk, from edges-blurred psychedelia to low-key torch bal­ladry. Trou­ble Any­way ul­ti­mately sounds like a com­mu­nal record, not the prod­uct of a lone artist but that of a mu­si­cian sur­round­ing her­self with friends and de­ploy­ing them like she would an ef­fects pedal or a key­board patch. Mid­dle­man du­els with gui­tarists Paul Su­keena (Spacin’) and Mike Polizze (Purl­ing Hiss) on “Lie To Me” and “Rise To Fall”, while Mary Lat­ti­more adds dra­matic flut­ters of harp to “If I Was Your Heart” and key­boards to “Dead And Gone”. Stitch­ing ev­ery­thing to­gether is a makeshift rhythm sec­tion fea­tur­ing bassist Dan Proven­zano of lo­cal noise­mak­ers the Writhing Squares and drum­mer Nathan Bowles, best known as an Amer­i­can Prim­i­tive banjo player but also for­merly a drum­mer in Steve Gunn’s tour­ing band.

Of all the sounds and styles th­ese play­ers in­dulge, per­haps the dom­i­nant mode here is blues. Mid­dle­man is not a blues artist per se, and any in­flu­ence from Howlin Wolf or Robert John­son or Ju­nior Kim­brough is in­di­rect. Rather, her songs have the feel of blues, if not ex­actly the sound. She’s got trou­ble in mind, to quote Light­nin’ Hop­kins. In­deed, Mid­dle­man writes prob­ingly about sex­ual pol­i­tics and the in­abil­ity of men and women to truly con­nect – a pop­u­lar sub­ject

of blues songs. “I’ll be half a woman to your half a man,” she sings over a par­al­lax clus­ter of gui­tars on “Lie To Me”, “and I’ll keep the other half ’til you learn how to stand.” You could imag­ine Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith de­liv­er­ing those lines with a leer and a wink. Trou­ble Any­way is not ex­actly a breakup record, but some­thing a bit more elu­sive, a bit more un­set­tled. At times it sounds like a record of stay­ing to­gether when you know break­ing up would be so much bet­ter, so much health­ier. “The trou­ble I’ve found ly­ing in your arms is the trou­ble I’d be trou­bled with any­way,” Mid­dle­man sings on the ti­tle track, as the gui­tars do the wor­ry­ing and hand-wring­ing for her. By the time she gets to the fi­nal track, “Maybe I’m Right”, her per­spec­tive sounds hard won, the song quiet but the sen­ti­ments very loud: “Felt like self-de­struc­tion in the mid­dle of the night,” she pon­ders. “Start­ing to ques­tion the path of a line. Maybe I’m right… Maybe I’m right.”

Rather than belt­ing out th­ese songs, Mid­dle­man de­ploys a dead­pan that prizes sub­tle and mi­cro­cos­mic shifts in tone and in­ten­tion. Like Aimee Mann, an­other singer-song­writer to whom she bears more than a pass­ing re­sem­blance, she un­der­states her lyrics so that that they hit you harder; she makes you lean into th­ese songs, lis­ten a bit more care­fully, care­fully parse her phras­ing and her words. And per­haps that’s an­other as­pect of the blues in th­ese songs, this sense of evok­ing a feel­ing just out of reach, ei­ther too in­tense or too enor­mous or too neb­u­lous or sim­ply too hor­rific to put into words with much ac­cu­racy. Th­ese are songs about emo­tions, but they are not nec­es­sar­ily emo­tional songs. “Tears they

rolled away, cried a lake,” she con­fesses on opener “I Wanna Know”. “What am I to­day?/Cry a lit­tle longer.”“Cried a lake” is so suc­cinct and evoca­tive, point­ing to a grief as large and as dan­ger­ous as any body of wa­ter in which you could drown. An­other song­writer might have made that im­age the whole point of the song, but Mid­dle­man has the con­fi­dence to tuck it away into a cor­ner of a verse, where it lies in wait for the lis­tener.

Mid­dle­man sings “I Wanna Know” in a hush, as though she’s a safe dis­tance from what­ever made her cry a lit­tle longer in the first place. To her credit, how­ever, she is never at a safe dis­tance from her lis­ten­ers. She makes th­ese songs sound edgy in their im­me­di­acy, prickly in their in­ti­macy, as dis­rup­tive as a pass­ing train.

Trou­ble Any­way an­nounces the ar­rival of an artist who fits neatly into no cat­e­gory, but thrives in the in­be­tween.

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