26 January 2009

Review: Erin Bode's Little Garden

So who is this Erin Bode? Was she marooned on a desert island as a child with only a stack of Paul Simon records for company? Maybe, at least on the evidence of "The Little Garden."

"The Little Garden" is the St. Louis-based singer's third studio album and by far her strongest effort. The writing partnership between Bode and Adam Maness continues to deepen and the songs they've come up with are all first rate. Bode and the band -- Maness (piano, etc.), Syd Rodway (bass) and Derrek Phillips (drums & percussion) -- produced the CD themselves and the arrangements are sophisticated and assured. And although Bode & Company generally get categorized as a jazz group, "The Little Garden" is further evidence of her trajectory away from the standard jazz vocalist template. Not that Bode is averse to jazz or the charms of the American Songbook. She's just not cracking that corn this time around. And I don't care.

On the track "Long, Long Time" from her 2006 album "Over and Over" Bode sings:
You're playing old songs. That's been done before.
What are you playing all those old songs for?
Will you look back on yesterdays
And wish that you had so much more to say?
Perhaps tellingly, the following year Bode and her former label (on St. Louis-based MaxJazz) went through what seemed from the outside like a bitter split. (Sample the scuttlebutt on Dean Minderman's excellent St. Louis Jazznotes.) Neither side has discussed it publicly, but it resulted in Bode posting an appeal for "legal defense" funds on her website in August 2007. Then in January 2008, another posting announced that the legal issue was "resolved" and a few months later Bode signed with California independent jazz label Native Language.

So was MaxJazz trying to keep Bode on the jazz standard straight-and-narrow? Or did it have more to do with booking, or personalities, or whatever? At this point, it's anyone's guess. But her career does present a case study of the dilemma facing the young jazz-oriented musician.
  • Bode's debut album "Don't Take Your Time" (MaxJazz 2004) was an impressive cover-heavy mix of pop, country, bluegrass, and jazz standards (with one original composition, the title track, by Bode and Maness) and she was backed by some heavyweight jazz sidemen including Bruce Barth, Mulgrew Miller, Larry Grenadier and Montez Coleman among them.
  • On "Over and Over" the Bode's and her working band came to the fore. Maness and Bode also wrote most of the CD's fourteen songs and only one of the three covers, "Alone Together," is a standard.
  • And now The Little Garden, which clearly has jazz somewhere in its DNA, but would rest comfortably on a shelf next to any number of late 70s albums by Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Boz Scaggs, or James Taylor.
Which brings us back to Paul Simon, who seems to be a touchstone for both Bode and Maness. (Significantly, a side project of the band's was a 2006 trip to South Africa to record with the Themba Girl's Choir, and since it's hard not to draw a comparison to Simon's "Graceland" project I won't even try.) Bode covered "Graceland" on "Over and Over" and it was one of two weak moments on the album. The other was the cover of Simply Red's "Holding Back the Years." To me, both tracks come off a little too reverential and plodding.

By contrast, the only cover on "The Little Garden" is Simon's "Born at the Right Time" (from 1990's "Rhythm of the Saints") and this time they actually outdo the original by removing the World Market exoticism and rendering the song the way Simon might have in the 70's, on a lush bed of Fender Rhodes. (Had I been asked to pick out the Paul Simon cover on first hearing, I might have gone for "Chasing After You" instead.)

Songs about difficult lovers ("Sweater Song" and "Sydney Come Down" representing the ying and yang of the Bode/Maness approach, respectively) occupy much of "The Little Garden," and really, where would popular song be without them? Where Bode and Maness move beyond this format the results are especially satisfying.

On the string-infused "Fences," they manage a spooky sweetness that Kurt Weil would have appreciated.
I've tried reason, but they don't comprehend.
I've tried sanctions, but they won't make amends.
I've taken hostages, but the won't meet my demands.
I've tired blackmail, but they have too many friends.
The album closer, "Goodnight," is a beautiful lullaby complicated by a perplexing point of view and an undercurrent of resignation worthy of a suicide note. But that may just be Bode's Swedish Lutheran upbringing.

So who is this Erin Bode? Whoever she is, I'm looking forward to seeing what she and the band come up with next.

Freebies: There are plenty to be had on Bode's website.


Happy In Bag said...

What a thoughtful review!

Rick Shide said...

I liken her more to Rikki Lee Jones