Sunday, July 5, 2015

Album Review: Alicia Witt - Revisionary History

There's an old saying that all rock stars want to be actors, and all actors want to be rock stars. Maybe you've heard it with the word athlete in place of actor, but it applies in either case. There is a long, rich history of actors branching out beyond Hollywood to try their hand in the glamorous, or not, life of a musician. Most of the time, they are vanity projects that don't really showcase anything of the person in question, because the songs were picked over from the pop star scrap heap. But sometimes we are reminded that not all actors are one-trick ponies, and some of them had their sights set on music long before they stepped in front of a camera.

Alicia Witt is a familiar name and face to many, but not for her music. Though she has been on our tv screens for a long time, this is her first full album. And much to my delight, it is an album that showcases not just Alicia Witt the singer, but also Alicia Witt the songwriter.

Playing a style of piano-centered pop that sounds almost quaint compared to the digital mess of noise that passes for pop music today, this is the kind of album that cries out for a slightly more mature pop listener. It sounds like an extremely ageist thing to say, and I guess it is, but I also realize that I don't think there is much of an appetite for this style of music amongst anyone much younger than my 31 years. That's a damn shame, since Alicia proves herself here to be a more than capable force.

"Friend" opens the album with twinkling piano, and a melody that ebbs and flows without ever breaking the flow, the kind that I think plays to the strengths of a singer. It's warm and engaging, and when she layers her vocals in the latter choruses, it's also impeccable and beautiful. Coupled with some sharp writing, including a delightful little metaphor in the form of "you've split me spine to page", it's clear that this is a work from the heart.

Alicia's background as an actress comes through in "About Me", where she's able to use her voice's limitations to her advantage, turning in a performance that exudes sass and character, which are traits that are not easy to convey through song. That she does so is a testament to her commitment to these songs. A song like "Blind" brings in acoustic and slide guitars and a slight Americana feel, but at its heart is a really good pop song built on a strong chorus.

"Theme From Pasadena (You Can Go Home Again)" is a duet with Ben Folds, a slow-burning track that rides on ample atmosphere and the satisfying blend of their voices. It's not hard to imagine the song playing over the credits of a 70s soapy drama. I think that's what they were going for. I'm more certain that "Consolation Prize" is aiming for an Elton John feeling, with a chord construction that feels similar, and brittle, cutting guitars that sound like they were ripped straight off an old vinyl. This kind of music is so easy and comfortable that I wonder about the one misstep, the hip-hop detour of "Down", which spends three minutes robbing the record of its biggest selling point.

Closing out the record is the anti-holiday tune "I'm Not Ready For Christmas", which in addition to being a bit biting, and certainly catchy with another of those rolling melodies, also says something I have been yelling about for years: "It just occurs to me the Grinch was not so mean, he had a point or two". Thank you Alicia for putting in song the truth; the Grinch should have been mad at the Whos if he could hear them from the top of a mountain. They were terrible neighbors, using the spirit of Christmas to cover up their lousy behavior, which is part of the underlying message of the song.

Overall, "Revisionary History" is actually a very sweet little record that you probably wouldn't be expecting. Aside from that one little stumble, it's the kind of music you can put on and enjoy without having to wonder if civilization is really coming to an end. That might be a bit extreme, but I like records like this, records that are organic and enjoyable. If the acting well ever dries up, Alicia Witt certainly has what it takes to make a go of it with music.

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