[Rating: 3½ stars]
When this summer’s revived Lilith Fair struggled to sell tickets, music and culture-at-large pundits opined that the age of the roots-music-steeped female singer-songwriter was over – replaced by those, like Lady Gaga, steeped in show-biz artifice and theatricality.
If that’s the case, word hasn’t spread to those “old-fashioned” singer-songwriters. This year to date has brought outstanding albums by women still true to the model of writing poetically observational songs about life as actually lived by real people — Shelby Lynne, Tift Merritt, Tracey Thorn… Rather than being an endangered species, they seem to be having a renaissance.
Add Rain Perry’ Internal Combustion to that list. Recorded at Austin’s Congress House studio with producer Mark Hallman (Tom Russell, Eliza Gilkyson) and an effortlessly empathetic band, this has tuneful compositions that are playfully witty and poignantly wise. She is confessional toward her fears on the haunting, soulful “So You’re the Muse,” but can also be a keen, novelistic storyteller – the barbed, bluesy “Keanuville” is a foreboding look at a movie-star stalker.
Her expressively conversational singing style – she doesn’t have a booming range – on Internal Combustion, coupled with the wry way her lyrics address insecurities, earns comparison with Amy Rigby. Clever album opener “The Compartmentalized Thing,” about the performing songwriter’s angst, has a hip, funky, horn-punctuated groove.
Although Ojai, California resident Perry isn’t well-known nationally, she’s no newcomer –- she’s 46, the daughter of troubled hippie parents and the mother of two teenage daughters who delayed her early music dreams because of rheumatoid arthritis. She’s also put out two previous low-profile albums on her own label. The last, the autobiographical Cinderblock Bookshelves, spawned a song, “Beautiful Tree,” now the theme for the CW series “Life Unexpected.”
By the way, she has very eclectic taste. The album has three covers – Bob Seger’s “Till It Shines,” Paul Simon’s “Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” It’s good to see her getting it on.