Recording of September 2014: Runaway's Diary

Amy LaVere: Runaway's Diary
Archer ARR 319611/2 (LP/CD). 2014. Luther Dickinson, prod.; Kevin Houston, eng., Daniel Lyon, asst. eng. ADA/ADD. TT: 38:27.

"It's not your average gal that drinks bourbon neat, walks around with a pocket atlas and drives a big white gear van. I thought she was charming and awfully funny."

Talent and humor has never been a problem for Amy LaVere. Not long after high school she led Last Minute, a Detroit punk band. When we next hear of her, she's in Nashville as part of a husband-and-wife folk/country duo, The Gabe and Amy Show, who released a single, "Blankets of Love," b/w Johnny Cash's "Big River."

After a move to Memphis in 1999 and the dissolution of her marriage to former Legendary Shack Shakers member Gabe Kudela, the singer-songwriter and double-bass player came under the wing of Jim Dickinson, the Memphis legend who played on Sticky Fingers, produced Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers, and fathered Cody and Luther Dickinson, aka the drummer and guitarist at the center of the North Mississippi All Stars. Like her friend singer Shannon McNally, quoted above, and with whom she toured in 2012, LaVere's restless intelligence and wide-ranging musical tastes have made it difficult to find a setting for her little-girl voice that connects with a larger audience.

LaVere is an especially gifted lyricist, and a writer of beguiling songs in a unique blend of genres. Part roots-rock girl, part moody indie-rock singer-songwriter, she mixes flecks of swing, blues, and New Orleans rhythms with her often dark and pain-scarred lyrics. Yet over her first three albums, LaVere has stumbled over tempos and, particularly, arrangements. Listening to records like her first Dickinson production, 2007's Anchors and Anvils (whose cover memorably featured LaVere holding a rhinestone-encrusted pistol), or the troubled Stranger Me (2011), the songs seemed to have more potential than the meandering arrangements and unremarkable rhythms could support. As easy as LaVere was to root for, the whole picture never quite came together.

Runaway's Diary is the sound of stars aligning, both personally (judging by her lyrics) and musically, much of the latter due to a knockout production job by Luther Dickinson. The album sounds spacious, and while clearly focused on her voice, is immensely attractive for its full-bodied sound, its spare, tasteful arrangements, and the original drumming and percussion by LaVere's longtime collaborator Shawn Zorn. Dickinson plays guitar on eight of the ten tracks. Even better, the LP on gold vinyl, is superquiet and, for an indie release, of refreshingly high quality in both mastering and pressing. And for old school believers in analog sound, it's a nice touch that the album's credits include the line: "Principal recordings made on magnetic tape."

From the chorus of the opening track, "Rabbit," when LaVere's voice glides upward in the chorus of "Hey rabbit, hey rabbit / Can you read the stars?," it's clear that this record is a very firm foot forward. Every piece of the puzzle clicks from the first note. Behind the sinuous guitar, drums, and voice of "Last Rock 'n' Roll Boy to Dance," Jim Spake's baritone sax adds sinister toodling as LaVere channels her inner Madeleine Peyroux.

LaVere, whose experience of running away from home at age 15 was one of the inspirations for Runaway's Diary, reverts to a little slow rock'n'roll for "Big Sister," an edgy hymn to sibling rivalry in which she coos, "Big sister gets to first base / Big sister, big tramp / Big sister's wearing makeup on her face / She don't care that I can't." The wordless vocal doubling the piano line near the song's end is typical of the details that make this record such a pleasure to listen to, especially through headphones.

Happily, this is not a record in which the songcraft trails off the further in you listen. "Self Made Orphan" is more rock'n'roll, this time with a snappier beat. Dickinson's rhythmic sense gives "Where I Lead Me" an appealing swampiness. Another quietly inventive, slow-march arrangement makes "How?" the kind of breakthrough number that has expanded the careers of everyone from Edie Brickell to Sharon Van Etten. "Lousy Pretender" takes on a honky-tonk-lite vibe, and is yet another example of how these open, very spare arrangements perfectly match LaVere's feathery voice.

LaVere's finest vocal performance is on the album's most personal song, "Don't Go Yet John." She trills the first line of each verse, "I wronged my baby," before taking responsibility, with a wink: "I thought he was fooling' me / I said some things I didn't mean / Unless of course he did those things."

It may simply have been her time; she's paid enough dues. Or, as a songwriter, she hit a particularly fertile stretch. And having a Dickinson on board never hurts. Whatever the reasons, Runaway's Diary should be Amy LaVere's breakaway sensation.—Robert Baird