Saturday, January 06, 2007

"Hum" It Along With Me

A girl with an acoustic guitar sometimes makes me want to run for the hills. I mostly kinda like my music with a heavy beat, grinding guitars, and drums that knock your head about. The majority of artists on my iPod are guys: Green Day, Outkast, Queen, Gnarls Barkley, songs from James Bond movies and Monty Python. So, when a friend announced his wife's new album, Alison Lewis's Hum, I didn't know what to expect, but the first thing I heard was an acoustic guitar. The second thing I heard was Alison's wonderful voice singing the first line to "Home":
Weeds are growing through the screen
On the back porch the yard is
full of landmines
broken bottles
Buried bones and empty homes
and I thought to myself, I could get into this.

Lewis is from my home state of Michigan, and though I knock the State for a variety of reasons, there's one thing that I love about Michigan: the music that flows out of it and its largest city of Detroit. Lewis may be influenced by a Michigan sound (as well as touches of Appalachia and Oregon), but throughout the album, Lewis maintains her own uniquely blended voice. The songs may be somewhat 'quiet' as acoustic music usually is, but the juxtaposition of those 'quiet' moments with her hard hitting lyrics create haunting melodies and heart-wrenching portrayals of people in seemingly hopeless situations, barely holding on. In Lewis's voice, though, they find their redemption of sorts, as her voice pulls them through the dark nights of their souls.

"Dear Janie" anchors Hum. The song centers around a 'ghost,' a young mother and talented painter who dies too young. The town calls her crazy; Lewis calls her brilliant and we in turn are better for having met Janie through Lewis's eyes. There is always a chance that a tricky lyric such as "You are a shadow. You are a ghost" could easily delve into ghostly parody; Lewis's voice cries out so plaintively in a wish to have met this woman whose painting she cannot afford, that our only wish becomes one of wanting to have known Janie ourselves.

In "Rubberband" Lewis sings: "She's got a rubberband around her heart/to keep from falling apart/She takes it all so hard, tries to fix it/she doesn't know where to start." Not only has her protagonist's dreams fallen apart, she may not be so nice ("she's got a million friends/they just keep leaving") and she seriously needs to reconsider the direction of her life. Lewis doesn't judge her for the possible mistakes she's made, but gently suggests that it's time to change: "When do you stop believing/that things will turn out how you planned?/when do you realize/that everything must come to an end?"

In "Witches," the only hope is to pray hard "To the goddess of forgiveness/the witches who can heal us/to the memory of those lost along the way," because we're all seriously in trouble. We've lost our way spiritually, and Lewis is only too happy to lead us into a druidian prayer to restore the nature of things.

My favorite song is "Shiner," a protest song to jumpstart the soul. It starts out deceptively quiet and gently builds a controlled ferocity as Lewis encourages the listener to remember their spark:
We rarely verbalize our greatest desires
like what would you take with you if your house catches fire?
where do you feel you fit in to the big design?
how far can you be pushed 'till you finally cross the line?

What would you remember most, if you lost your sight?
How firm will you stand when they take away your rights?
How many times have you said goodbye?
and where would you go if you could fly?
After her admonishment, Lewis brings it back down and touches on those things that might have caused us to lose our way, with a gentle hand on our fevered brow of despair. Every time I listen to "Shiner," particularly if I am thinking about how crappy the world is, it boosts me up a bit and encourages a productive rage ("what color would you pick if you had to pick just one?/what would you want to leave behind when all is said and done?"). If I could take only one song with me into the trenches, there's a possibilitiy that "Shiner" would be it.

Hum, to me, is primarily about partnership, and each song describes relationships to self, to anger, to love and humanity, and celebrates the joining of all souls. The pictures Lewis paints about love ("My heart is a Black Dog/sleeping under your truck/She's helpless, defenseless/knows that true love is luck") and the healing effects of 'merging tribes' ("Of all the people I have known/I stay with you/it feels like home") make this one great acoustic album full of pain and passion and poetry. And once you've heard it, you'll be humming it along with me.

Buy a hardcopy of Hum at CDBaby or search for Alison Lewis on iTunes.

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