Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Anne Heaton - Blazing Red


Love and fear. Most songwriters don’t put them together. But to give love, and keep giving it, often involves great emotional risk. And Anne Heaton knows this. Blazing Red opens with the words, “I’m ready to be afraid, I’m ready to jump”.

Heaton plays multiple keyboards here, glockenspiel, and even paper plate, but I’m willing to bet that she does most of her writing at the piano. Most of the songs start with just voice and piano, before the other instruments come in to add texture and emotional resonance. Heaton and coproducer Gary Maurer of Hem make wonderful use of a string quartet on many of the songs, and Heaton’s voice often has the quality of a fifth stringed instrument. I can almost hear the bow moving as Heaton draws out a note. All of this could be an overwrought mess, but that never happens. The emotions here are deep, but never overdone. Blazing Red also presents a rich variety of musical textures, but the album makes sense taken as a whole.

Heaton has a gift for crafting a song. Out to Sea is a fine example. There are lines and phrases that repeat throughout, but listen closely. Heaton changes a single word with each repetition, and it makes all the difference. The progression of these changes tells the story of a woman who finally finds the courage to give her love. In Crystalize, the craftsmanship is in the way the music is put together. First, the basic groove is established with electronic instruments; this one almost threatens to become synth-pop. But then, the strings come in with a call and response pattern between the cello and the other strings. From then on, the strings perform a series of variations on these parts, never playing the same thing twice. If you aren’t consciously aware of all this as you listen, it nonetheless has an effect. It’s not for show either; it fits the song beautifully. Fire Sign has an unusual texture, achieved with just piano, strings, and banjo.

This would all just be cleverness if the songs didn’t hold up. But Heaton presents a set of songs about being poised between love and fear. The musical tensions and releases only enhance the words. A few of the songs end musically unresolved, just as the situations in the songs do. The words describe different emotional defense mechanisms, and the effort, (not always successful), to drop these defenses. The woman in Pieces of Me talks about trying on different personalities in hopes of finding the one that would appeal to the guy she’s interested in, only to realize that the right one is the one that is her true self. It’s not clear whether she realizes this in time. In Where Your Scar Is, she is trying to draw emotion out of a man who is emotionally scarred from a previous relationship. How identity changes in a relationship, and how having been burned gets in the way of giving your heart again, are themes that recur in different forms throughout the album.

So Anne Heaton takes on an aspect of love you don’t often hear songs about, and she nails it. She and her coproducer provide rich musical textures to help put these feelings across, and it works. The emotions never sound forced, and always sound genuine. I just hope that Heaton is luckier in love than her protagonists.

Anne Heaton: Out to Sea

Anne Heaton: Fire Sign


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