Music Review: Lauren Anderson's 'Truly Me'
It’s easy to miss the obvious with Kansas City blueswoman Lauren Anderson — that dangerous label after the slash after “singer.”
Lauren Anderson is a fine songwriter, too, versatile and honest. She puts her cards — and her heart — on the table, right there in the liner notes: “This CD ... includes most of what I know, who I am, who I’d like to be and where I’d like to go.”
That’s a rare and vulnerable admission for somebody working the blues. It’s also an important part of what makes Truly Me work. It leaves these songs, especially the ones about every shade of good-but-not-quite-right relationships, a lot of room for interpretation — most importantly, her own. Anderson currently works as a music therapist in the pediatric unit at the University of Kansas Hospital, and her underlying understanding of music’s ability to heal is an unconscious undercurrent throughout the album.
The opener, “One Day,” frames the album like an origin story, testifying about her inability to “keep it in” and building to a shout of gratitude for the way the blues finally gave her a way to let all of it out. With guitarist Adam Stuber’s jagged, manic slide lines backing her up, Anderson seems as if she might burst with the need for release. She growls “until one day I found the blues” with the intensity of a religious conversion. As those blues build, it’s clear that the conversion has taken her a long way.
On a song like the smooth, confident, and silky “No Regrets,” Anderson’s lush voice wraps around a tale of inevitable infidelity. With Shinetop’s piano dropping mysterious smoky chords and octaves behind her, Anderson lets it be known that this tryst is going to be taken to its logical conclusion: “There’s no stopping us now/Forget all your rationality/The monster from within is calling out/We love the taste of sin.” She closes that phrase with the moaned “No regrets till we’re through,” the unexpected sincerity of the line capturing the wonderful and terrible desire of that moment.
That directness, and her willingness to take the blues places they don’t generally go, make her songs special. Even the horn-driven, Saturday-night-friendly “I Don’t Need,” with its chorus of “I just need one thing/to be understood” winds up being a jump tribute to paying attention to the person you need.
And strictly speaking, there are plenty of songs here that aren’t the blues. The optimistic lyrics and Caribbean rhythms of “Hole in the Boat,” with the refrain “We know how to swim/We will be all right,” winds up being the happiest moment here.
On the other emotional end of the spectrum, not pessimistic but just plain lost, is the folky “Winter’s Waltz,” which Anderson co-wrote with her brother Mark (who plays guitar on the song) and Eric Olson (whose “Lady Jane” Anderson also covers). With classical, almost-gypsy guitar minor-key arpeggios barely holding up her voice, it’s a series of vignettes about a relationship gone cold, a frigid, brittle a testament to Anderson’s range.
Instead of going for a “just like they’re live” sound (which rarely works well, especially for the blues), and even with the crunch and crush of Stuber’s guitar and the always-just-right-there rhythms of bassist Dylan Reiter and drummer Kris Schnebelen, the songs are mixed with plenty of space and clarity. The result is that Anderson’s voice is always centered in the mix. Though her voice occasionally meanders down a blind alley, such melodic detours make the songs feel that much more real.
This set, eight years in making, is Anderson’s first full-length CD (after last year’s EP Do & Hope), and she’s emerged on the scene at full speed with an impressive repertoire. Throughout Truly Me, Anderson’s voice makes her words come alive — and vice versa.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.