Sunday, May 30, 2010

Heart, head and harmony: Lisa Bell’s new album delightful

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Lisa Bell
“Dancing on the Moon”
Hapi Skratch Records

Most popular music likes to get your attention with a punch in the face. In today’s exploded, panic-strewn soundscape, what fills auditoriums and sells downloads are variations and repackagings of the same-old, same-old – alienation, misanthropy, the drive for power, lust denied and satisfied. Turned up really loud. Ah, youth.

In this atmosphere, it takes guts and wisdom to follow your own inclinations. Boulder-born Lisa Bell began her solo career as an interpreter of the Great American Songbook. In that capacity, her liquid voice and magnetic personality were top-notch.

But she wanted more. She began to write her own songs, and blur genre as well, trying unique arrangements and instrumentation to get the songs across. The results are there in her last two albums – 2005’s “It’s All About Love” and her current release, “Dancing on the Moon.”

These beautifully written and performed gems are not punches, but embraces – lyrical summonses to her thoughts on life, faith, love and hope. She’s not afraid to plumb complex emotional depths, and she brings a warm and shining burnish to her artfully conceived compositions.

“Dancing on the Moon” has a smooth, solid pop feel. Bell’s voice is more adept than ever at conveying meaning with grace and balance. Her lyrics deal with issues without preaching or self-pity, moving nimbly along as in “Change Is Free”:

“Can’t pay the mortgage and the bills are due/I just keep waiting for the other shoe/And I know, this too shall pass”

She’s aided in her efforts on this outing by co-writers Mark Oblinger and Bob Story, and Oblinger’s arrangements are pitch-perfect.

(Speaking of pitch, much is made of tunings in this work, from the arbitrary 440-cycles-per-second measure to the more “natural” 424. I have heard this alternate tuning before, in a concert involving Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello – and indeed it does appear do deliver a deeper, more grounded sound. Go to www.lisabellmusic.com for a very cogent explanation of this approach, along with surprising and illuminative sound bites that show the difference.)

I can’t commend her musical collaborators enough, either: Oblinger, Story, percussionist Christian Teele, bassist Chris Engleman, keyboardist Eric Moon, singers Robert Johnson and Linda Lawson, and Steve Conn with the loveliest accordion fills on two cuts.

For me, the proof of the pudding is not in the tuning but in the listening. This album should bear the sticker “For mature listeners only” – not because of objectionable content, but because it’s heady stuff from a grown-up artist who’s not afraid to confront herself in her work, to grow and change, to be vulnerable and share the wisdom she’s accumulated along the way.

“Dancing on the Moon” gives pleasure, and rewards thoughtful fans, all at once.