Inside Out

Lori Carson's Musical Confessions Speak To The Heart.

By Brendan Doherty 

COOLNESS ISN'T ABOUT being unable to feel," says chanteuse Lori Carson. "Being cool is about knowing who you are and not being affected by trends or fashion."

She's a woman with a guitar, and she's confessing to everyone in a devastatingly understated way how she feels. She's cool like PJ Harvey, Jill Sobule, the Cocteau Twins' Elisabeth Frasier, and Lisa Germano--but not cool like Rizzo in Grease, L7 or the Red Aunts. Carson's signature lines, memorable and distinct, are propelled by a divine air--a breathy, sultry voice louder at a whisper than hundreds of Alanis Morissette screamers.

Carson began playing guitar at age 10, always wanted to be a songwriter and never thought she was a good singer. She wanted to be good like Tom Waits or Elvis Costello. Raised in New York, she started playing the famed New York club Folk City. Her first record, Shelter (1990), paired her with producer Anton Fier, and he was struck by her strength and tenderness--so impressed that he asked her to join the Golden Palominos, a group that included such musical renegades as Bootsy Collins and Bill Laswell. More than a singer, Carson co-wrote most of the melody lines and lyrics for their legendary records This Is How It Feels (1993), and Pure (1994). Both records were stunning projects--lyrically sophisticated, rhythmically complex and masterfully delivered. Both retain their intensity and freshness, liquid sensuality, and immediacy years after their release.

"I've had lots of boyfriends, but the collaboration was something extraordinary," Carson says of Fier. "We played the role of muse for each other. I definitely learned more than I brought."

Once your ears drink in the singing of Lori Carson, it's hard to let anything else quench the thirst. The truth is, it's a thirst you may not have known you had. Her most recent, Everything I Touch Runs Wild, was largely recorded in her empty former bedroom in Chelsea. The 11 sinuously blended songs of ambient texture and acoustic sensitivity are striking and pure, with a confessional intensity. Her clear, bright soprano stretches in delicate anguish, accompanied by subtly sparse arrangements, carefully chosen guitar, flourishes of cello and the occasional keyboard. Inside it all burns the somber trumpet of Steven Bernstein from the Lounge Lizards. This is more than heartbroken folk, and that's precisely what makes her great.

"Those are the best vocals I've done, ever," she says. "The process was as pure as meditation. I could work on them in privacy, without limitations, without witnesses. I would have to wait for sirens to stop, for planes to fly by, and all of that, but in the end, it's great to have something that is a true reflection of who you are, and that's what's different about this record--I wanted to see what I could do without someone standing over me."

Once she laid down the tracks, she took off to Asia believing she had a finished record. She returned to New York, to the tapes, and went to Fier to help ensure the music behind the lyrics was as solid as the vocal performance. And the results are stunning. "Something's Got Me," the opening and closing track (done in two styles) is a sleek vision of being touched by love, and having lost it, only to be possessed by the loss. The second version seems naked by comparison. In "Black Thumb's" poetic lament, Carson sings "Everything I touch/runs wild with the pressure of it/becomes a pile of dust/with the pressure of it...I never meant to cause you anything but happiness."

Largely interpersonal topics become, in Carson's deft musical treatment, transpersonal. The semi-autobiographical water of love-and-loss rivers willfully carve the territory of the human heart with more passion than many of her strictly cartographic peers could chart.

There are lots of singers who address heartbreak and the anguish of being human. Carson transcends her less talented, less driven or less inspired peers with verve, wit, flair, and of course, the consistent ability to write and deliver memorable songs with a powerful emotional punch.

"In a superficial way, the songs sound sad, and the melodies are built and structured that way--dark in a sweet way," Carson says. "The melancholy part is the easiest thing to see. I'm doing more than being mopey. Melancholy implies something weak or undefined, but I'm doing something that resonates with me and with the world. I think I am sending love and support to women."

Confession is the greatest engine of intimacy, and Carson is as familiar with its tickings as a mechanic. "I have a mostly male following," Carson says. "They come to the shows and tell me that my lyrics contain things their ex-girlfriends have said, and that the girls were right. These are definitely written from the human experience, but it's from a female perspective. People are all we have, and every relationship suffers from each person's inability to be what they want to be. I don't know anyone who's in an idyllic situation. You want to go out with somebody and don't want passion? You should get a dog."

Lori Carson performs Sunday, May 4, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Tickets are $5. For more information, call 622-8848. TW

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