Sunday, May 15, 2011


On Caitlin's Rose's Own Side Now

Caitlin Rose: Own Side Now
by Wayne Robins

I've been listening to Caitlin Rose for nearly two months now, and have not been quite ready to let go. The problem is a benevolent one, as far as the music writing racket goes: I am used to restraining my enthusiasms, hedging my endorsements. It's got to do with the trained skepticism that is both innate and highly developed: Can this music really be this good? Especially considering Rose's her age. She is 23; I am a baby boomer, some of whose members of my class of 1949 now have grandchildren Caitlin's age. I have daughters both slightly older and a bit younger than Rose, and when it comes to singer-songwriters and their view of life, I trust almost no one under 30.

And yet Caitlin Rose earns, and deserves that trust on "Own Side Now," her first fill album. It was released last summer in the U.K., and just in March in the United States. It follows the highly promising EP debut "Dead Flowers" two years ago, highlighted by her true and daring reading of the Rolling Stones' greatest contribution to the Gram Parsons strain of defiantly doomed country rock.

But in the first moments, I discern her brilliance as both a singer and interpreter of her own songs. One is the double tracked vocals that give luster to the opening song, "Learnin' to Ride," in the way that the early practitioners of the technique—Patti Page, Mary Ford, and the early Beatles—might have done it. In this spot and others on the album, it makes Rose sound like she's harmonizing with a sibling: she sounds like the Everly Brothers, if the Everly Brothers were a single person, and that person was a 23-year-old woman.
There is also something in the phrasing (vocal styling) and the phrasing (word choices) that reminds me of Guy Clark, my touchstone for twangy singer-songwriter greatness. She's got a similar nonchalant shrug in the voice, and she's already showing the required storytelling skill, the honesty and clarity of the lyrics, and the devotion to craft that Clark has. In fact, I'll go a step farther and say that there are times when Rose's commitment to craft is as natural and fastidious as, say Paul Simon.

Rose grew up in Nashville, music in the air and in her blood: dad is musician Johnny Rose, who has been working in the business side of the music as an executive at DreamWorks, Capitol, and now Orbison Music Productions. He was also a road warrior whose most recent band is Out of State Plates. (Johnny plays some mandolin on the album.) Caitlin's mom, Liz Rose, is one of Nashville's most esteemed songwriters whose most current and madly successful partnership is with another young lady who goes by the name Taylor Swift.

Caitlin Rose is two years older than Swift, but seems half a generation older. Swift appears to be the kind of young person who really enjoys living in the suburbs and going to the mall. Rose is the young woman who flees suburbia for Williamsburg or Greenpoint, where she can drink too much, smoke herself silly, and live the artist's life. (She has a house now in boho East Nashville.) The album was produced by Rose with Mark Nevers (Lambchop, Andrew Bird) and Skylar Wilson (Justin Townes Earle). She's shared stages with a staggering range of artists, including Earle, Deer Tick and Phosphorescent. As far as social groupings go, this seems as right a place as any to place Rose: Phosphorescent is led by Matthew Houck, who keeps his Alabama roots intact in Brooklyn and who is a musical kindred spirit pretty close to Caitlin's.

"New York City" has the Guy Clark mojo working in the phrase, "New York's a good time to let go": not a place, not a town, but a "time." There's a contrast between the too slow South and the too-fast city, underscored by play between a steel guitar riff and gritty electric guitar solo that is mediated by some rolling piano about halfway between country and rock. Rose sings about the temptations available to a worldly but reckless young woman just barely old enough to drink with an inclination to make the best—or the worst—of it. And she's wise enough to know that when she lets the flip of a coin determine whether she sleeps with a guy she just met or not, that sometimes it's better to be lucky than smart.

The song "Own Side" may be the postmodern young woman's affectionate rebuke to Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now." Yeah, its love's illusions she recalls, too. But with tenderness and a pocketful of payback—Rose declares: "I'm goin' out on the town, said I'm tired of chasin' you down/It's not my right to always push you around." The mingling of defiance and melancholy creates a distinctive tone. She wears that signature emotional mix like a tattoo on the next song, "For the Rabbits," with strings arranged by Jordan Lehning (who also wrote the song "Things Change" with Rose). The tune has an edgy name but the stylistic rigor 1950s jukebox torch song. It's got one of Rose's best vocal performances, building towards a grand, if understated finish. There have been many songs about relationships that don't work, but are too comfortable to leave. But few connect as powerfully as Rose does in the piercing and precise chorus, in which the invitation to "fall back into routine disaster" is inevitable as it is irresistible.

The inability to completely let go is also the subject of Rose's most brilliant rocker, "Shanghai Cigarettes." The riff, the bounce, the energy, the fuzz guitar, the handclap rhythm, the punchy harmony from Rayland Baxter and the nimble lyrics stick in the head and is enough to keep your spirit afloat for a month. She surrenders to her inner rock imp in her in the crowing finale, as she breaks through her controlled restraint and just tears through the message of the song, "This will never be right and I will never let go!"

The final two songs are consistent with Rose's vulnerable but powerful persona. Both have elements of revenge: "Sinful Wishing Well" is a musical poison pen letter that all but places a curse on the object of her disaffection. "Comin' Up" is 1950s honky tonk in which she vows to get and stay inside the head of the one who done her wrong, to be "the echo you can never find": Retribution by the power of memory.
How good are these songs? There is a knockout cover of an excellent Stevie Nicks song, "Things Change," first done by Fleetwood Mac on their "Mirage" album. The first few times through the album, you hardly notice it, and you don't pick it out as a cover: it's not insignificant that even a song by a writer-performer as renowned as Nicks is overshadowed by the Caitlin Rose songs that surround it.

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