Out & About

Shannonwright often is compared to Tori Amos, the other red-haired, piano-playing singer-songwriter, but, she points out, only by male rock critics. Perhaps that's why I don't understand the comparison. It's akin to equating Sid Vicious and Eric Clapton on the basis that they were brunet Brits famous in the '70s for playing instruments with strings--as if a few common physical traits and labels transcend actual performance and style. While Amos creates pseudodrama by swaying at the keyboard and exaggerating her voice through whispers and howls, shannonwright has an innate sense of drama that leans more toward Kurt Weill-style musical theater and cabaret, as well as minimalist composition. The emotions in shannonwright's songs come not from her actual words--they're often nonsensical, at least to everyone except her--but from the music's tone and the way her voice curves around these lyrics.

Listening to shannonwright's songs is a bit like listening to an opera in an unfamiliar language: You know what's happening by the mood the music sets even if you have no idea what actually is said. These are quiet songs, powerful, too, written like chamber music but with only the slightest orchestration. That description probably makes as much sense as when, on "Flask Welder" from her second album Maps of Tacit, she sings, "You boil the greatest of lakes and you lick the envelope of monsoon," or something like that. Spend a few hours with her sparse, beautiful songs, and the grace is clear even if the lyrics are like reading a journal of someone else's dreams.

Starting out, shannonwright fronted a New York pop trio called Crowsdell, known for its 1995 Big Cat release Dreamette, but left when the record deal went bad. She sold her possessions and moved to rural North Carolina to start over and, she thought, never write or perform or be part of the music industry again. But her retirement didn't last long: She was soon compelled to write songs again, which often poured out one a day, and she released a few singles. In 1999, she recorded Flightsafety, joined by Calexico's Joey Burns and Eric Bachmann (Crooked Fingers and Archers of Loaf) for Quarterstick Records, part of Chicago's Touch and Go indie conglomerate. The songs from last spring's Maps of Tacit, on which she played almost all of the instruments herself, were written during the tours that followed Flightsafety, which found her opening for Will Oldham, Rachel's, and Dirty Three. Honed in rock clubs and bars where she competed against talkers biding time till the headliner came on, the songs snarl sometimes and decrescendo other times, forcing the listener to pay attention as tempos and volume fluctuate. Just as intense live as she is on recordings, shannonwright's rich voice draws focus to the small woman seated at the keyboard or holding the guitar.

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Shannon Sutlief