A handful of friends of mine have, over the last year or so, released albums that I’ve been meaning to write about, including (but not limited to) Harriet Schock, Pamela Polland and now Andrea Ross-Greene. I’ll go in reverse chronology and start with Andrea, with Harriet and Pamela to follow in the forthcoming weeks.
[PHOTOGRAPHY: CHRISTINE MURPHY]
I first heard and met Andrea Ross-Greene in 2002 in Los Angeles. I thought her charismatic and highly musical, both qualities evident in her gorgeous singing voice. However, I felt that her gifts as a melodicist and writer had a little catching up to do if they were to match those attributes. Some of her lines sounded like prose trying to fit itself into the structure of song words, though there was no doubting her talent. Now, nine years later, I have absolutely no hesitation in calling her a brilliant songwriter. I’m overwhelmed by my own response to her album, Forever Again. I should point out that when I listen to an album by someone I’ve met, I’m a harsher critic simply because I’m less likely to be in thrall to a PR campaign or celebrity mystique. I fully expected Andrea’s album to be pleasant; what I didn’t expect was to be touched and moved as profoundly as I was.
I already knew that Andrea was a brilliant singer, though I hadn’t experienced the dazzling beauty of her lower range, which is displayed on some of Forever Again’s best songs. It’s an instrument with an effortless, unforced and extremely natural pulchritude, and Andrea has the good taste and judgement to eschew the kind of melismatic vocal pyrotechnics that so many singers overuse. When you have a voice like this, showboating is both unnecessary and rather tawdry. Though comparisons are of limited use, I’ll go ahead – I hear elements of Brenda Russell, the late Phoebe Snow, and – unexpectedly – the creamy qualities of the Peterson sisters (from The Bangles). I have no reservations about associating Andrea with songwriters and singers of that calibre.
The revelation here, however, comes by way of Andrea’s songs and the invigorating way in which they’ve been recorded and presented. She demonstrates mastery of a number of pop styles, with elements of soul, folk and country sprinkled throughout. There’s a fairly even split between jovial and reflective subject matter and, though it can be a mistake to assume that songs in the first person are autobiographical, here it would seem that they are. An irresistible warmth is constantly present as Andrea sings of childhood, romantic isolation, family, estrangement and reconciliation. I think her strengths are most pronounced in her ballads. The title track uses stark, economical imagery ("unlit candle", "egg-shell littered floors", “rented room”, “hostile silence”) to convey emotion with the restraint and intelligence of a Janis Ian song.
However, the first song that reached out and forcibly grabbed me into its world was "Look What You’ve Done" with its beautiful string arrangement recalling, but not aping, Pachelbel’s Canon. I was astonished that Andrea had written something similar to (and as good as) the two brilliant film theme-songs that Carole Bayer Sager and Carole King co-wrote in the late 90s (for You’ve Got Mail and One True Thing). And, to my ongoing surprise, that song isn’t even the best constructed on the collection – that accolade would have to be shared by the uplifting "Rainbow Fingers", which has a Nyro-esque, shuffle piano part, and the bracingly therapeutic "Bird of Paradise". Also notable in the ballad portion of the album is the earnest cri de coeur, "Be Gentle With Me".
I certainly don’t mean to dismiss the up-tempo pieces inadvertently, of which the strongest are – to my mind – the more emotionally probing ones, including "Growing Up Motown" and "To The Sisters", the latter a heartfelt, gospel-tinged paean to aunts, and strikingly original in its subject matter. I scratched my head, trying to think of other songs about aunts (or even uncles), and couldn’t find one.
Now I say, with absolute honesty and not a trace of hyperbole, that Andrea’s album is a discreet, delightfully un-flashy masterpiece. I’m enjoying it considerably more than several recent major label offerings by some of my favourite singer/songwriters. Andrea’s music has taken beautiful form in the studio and it’s hard to imagine how a voice like hers could be captured badly. But without good songs, that wouldn’t amount to a great album. Andrea has not only written good songs, she’s written brilliant ones, ones that bring to mind the best efforts of Beth Nielsen Chapman, Brenda Russell and Andrea’s own mentor, Harriet Schock.