Saturday, January 2, 2010

Jessie Torrisi – brûler brûler – Album Review
November 19th, 2009 by justin | Print
Jessie Torrisi - brûler brûler - Album Review9.0101
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Rating: 9.0/10 (1 vote cast)

What exactly does it mean to say a particular musician is indie? Any reasonably comprehensive definition of that word is going to be necessarily complex, but if you let me get parsimonious on your asses for a second, I’ll say the indie tag employs a combination of (a) financial integrity and (b) a songcrafting/recording/producing style that is, in one way or another, somewhat fucked up, quirky, unique, or just plain different enough to void any chance of mainstream radio play.

The professor in me automatically thinks of such definitional situations in terms of matrices, in this case a 2×2 matrix. Two characteristics, each dichotomous. Financial Integrity? Yes or no. Fucked upness? Yes or no. Depending on the answers to the two questions, you can characterize the band of your choice as indie or something else. For example, if both answers are yes (i.e., the band under analysis possesses both financial integrity and non-mainstream music), they are clearly indie. Conversely, if both answers are no (i.e., neither financial integrity or radio unfriendliness conditions are present), they are certainly not indie. The 1 yes, 1 no answers pose occasional problems – Bono may make a solo drone project or St Vincent might sell out to Twilight and Hot Topic (oh wait …) – but since the former is a rich motherfucker doing weird music and the latter is doing credible art but getting paid by mega-corporations, neither would qualify as indie in my world. Simple, really.

Or so it was until I heard Jessie Torrisi’s new record. An Austinite by way of Brooklyn and New Orleans, Torrisi’s debut solo effort, brûler brûler, plays national-style country as straight as anything you’ve heard since the mid 1980s. Thing is, she does it really, really well. While the weirdness might not be apparent on the surface level, the financial integrity is certainly there. At least, from this post on her blog, I think it is safe to say she hasn’t been doing any Hot Topic meet and greets like some of the regular Pitchfork heroes have been/will be. And just because Torrisi is apparently playing the country old school and not gussied up with affectatious irony doesn’t mean she’s lacking cred; her session musicians in the studio came from hipster-certified acts like French Kicks and Antony and the Johnsons, and Torrisi herself has been around the underground New York circuit as a sought-after drummer, playing in bands as diverse as Unisex Salon, Laptop, The Fleurs Tragiques, and the C.U.N.T. Rock Revolution.

This album begins with a contrast, one that will be with the listener throughout brûler brûler: delicate strumming paired with a heavy “come hither, you fool” vibe. The sly confidence isn’t always on the surface – some of the album’s songs are quite vulnerable and tender – but “Hungry Like Me” carries an elephant’s dose of oomph and mmmm. It also makes me think, directing those thoughts to whatever dummy this song is about, “how on Earth did you screw this up? I mean, all she needs is somebody hungry! You know what that means, right?” Maybe the person responsible for inspiring this song was just afraid, worrying about being overwhelmed by the proverbial tidal wave. Torrisi dispatches with that nonsense post haste: “Baby, get your hair wet.”

This is a woman, I’m ashamed to say, I’d likely struggle to maintain eye contact with. And I love it.

Just as you are settling in for something slinky, though, Torrisi changes direction entirely on “X in teXas.” The song starts with something that sounds like a washtub bass and trombone duet, before Torrisi weighs in on the subject of love in her newly adopted state. The title is fitting, as the song is replete with Texas fashion metaphors and slogans, and is as much about the futility of moving on from a relationship (in it, she goes so far as to give up wearing cowboy boots to forget about the lost love) as it is about the desperate need to get a move on. The song benefits remarkably from a tremendous arrangement, and Torrisi is not afraid to be as lyrically vulnerable as her narrative’s character is, with the song’s do-do-dos and phrases like “you put the low in low life.” What I particularly love here is the light lyrical scat at the 2:30 mark, which itself leads up to a whispered Mahalia warming up moment, as Torrisi informs the subject, finally, “we’re through.”

Like the change from siren to saddened songbird in the transition from Track 1 to Track 2, Torrisi does another attitudinal 180 as she begins “Cannonball,” a torchy sway of a song. Perhaps the album’s strongest tune, “Cannonball” finds the tomcat back in Torrisi as you first found her on the album opener. In the song, her plea to turn the lights down is as sexy and plaintive as Teddy P. screamed to turn them off back in ‘79. Another emotional u-turn greets the listener in “Breeze in Carolina,” where Torris’s vocals and instrumentals return to vulnerability, but not too much so. There’s resignation in this song, wistfulness, regret, and a pinch of self-indulgent jealousy as she ponders why a lover is leaving her in New York for the Carolina coast, but she’s also going back to bed when the truck finally pulls away, not staying up and crying over cold coffee or the veritable spilled milk. And once she’s up and has her shit back together, you better believe she’s gonna be back to the form we’ve already come to expect thanks to songs like “Hungry Like Me” and “Cannonball.” Yeah, she’ll miss your tenderness, but there are others out there. Say what you want, but this gal is a perfect match for the hero of any old Marshall Tucker Band song.

The rest of the record is filled with mirth and delight. At least a couple of the remaining tracks bring to mind The Pretenders, “Runaway Train” and “The Brighter Side,” with the former notable for the great line about cupid somewhere trying to even the score and the latter for the sophisticated yet simplistic arrangement of the instrumentals. Marshall Tucker Band also returns to mind in “So Many Miles,” though Torrisi seems far more comfortable in her skin than Toy Caldwell ever was.

All this is great, but “Storm Clouds” might be the most noteworthy dimension of brûler brûler, with a chorus that is arguably the most resplendent moment on the entire album. Further, the strings just kill it on this song, providing a perfect example of how Torrisi’s biggest talent may not be her tremendous voice or her solid guitar work, but rather her ability to lead a band and put together a complete song. As a nice side note to conclude on, I have it on good authority that the lady responsible for orchestral contribution also once played for Beyonce – let’s hope Jay-Z never hears “”Hungry Like Me.

Jessie Torrisi’s self-released debut solo album, brûler brûler, dropped on October 27th. You can snag your own copy here.

Jessie Torrisi – Cannonball

Jessie Torrisi – Hungry Like Me

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Rating: 9.0/10 (1 vote cast)

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