I found Rebecca Loebe almost by accident. I feel very lucky.
Rebecca Loebe has a singing voice that reminds me of two other singers, Maria Muldaur and Jane Siberry. Muldaur could be cloyingly sweet, while Siberry has a high girlish voice that forces her to work hard to be taken seriously. Loebe has the sweetness of both, but without either of those handicaps. And Loebe shares with Siberry an amazing dynamic range. Loebe can belt out a song, or sing at an almost whisper, but either way, she gets her point across.
On Mystery Prize, Loebe plays acoustic guitar, and her band includes stand-up bass, percussion, pedal steel, and one musician who can add tenor guitar, harmonica, trumpet, or mandolin. The bass player also adds second guitar and keyboards. Then add guest musicians who contribute accordion, backing vocals, a horn section and a trio of strings. Here you have a recipe either for a sonic mess, or a rich musical pallet. In painting, you would either get an ugly brown blob or Starry Night. This one is closer to Starry Night. Loebe knows just what to do with each musical color; she knows which part of her canvas needs which musical color. But more important, Loebe knows when to leave things out. This is a rare musical gift, requiring confidence and the ability to trust ones instincts. So, yes, there are places where almost everybody is playing, and it’s a big exciting sound. But there are also places where almost everybody drops out, and Loebe sings softly. These are some of the most powerful moments on the album.
Loebe is also a gifted lyricist. Here are eleven songs on the most used subject in all of songdom: love. But Loebe avoids the many cliches available to her, and looks at love from angles that feel new. Mystery Prize, the song, finds a woman in a comfortable relationship who is drawn to a new man. Her in That Dress finds a woman who feels that the qualities of her personality are not enough to compete with the physical attractiveness of a rival. Triangles are something of a theme here, also turning up in Married Man and hinted at in Trenches, Dear. Each time, the subject is treated in a different way. There also one-on-one scenarios. Marguerita has the feel of an old country song praising one woman to the skies; my model for this kind of song would be Amanda. The gender of Loebe’s narrator here is unclear to me, but it is also unimportant.
But her perhaps the most remarkable piece of storytelling here come in two songs that complement each other. First comes Redneck Karaoke Bar. The narrator meets a man and goes wild for him. The song has a joyous feel, and this seems to be the one time on the album when love brings complete happiness. But the song leads directly into Land & Sea, with no break. Now the narrator wakes up the next morning in a strange house and possibly a hangover. By the light of day she can not remember how she got here, and she has cause to regret it. To me, the two songs need to be together to tell the full story, and it’s very powerful.
Loebe can write in a wide range of musical styles, but she never loses focus. She has the musicians with her to pull it off. And I can’t imagine how any of the songs could be done any other way. This is my first new release of the year, and the bar has been set high for all who follow. I have only one criticism; this album is only 37 minutes long. I wouldn’t have wanted any drop-off in quality, but I was definitely left wanting more.
Rebecca Loebe: Marguerita
Rebecca Loebe: Her in That Dress