When I was a kid, I used to have a hell of a time convincing some of my more conservative relatives that popular music was a worthy vocation for a thinking adult. “All that yelling and screaming,” they’d say. “You learn three chords on a loud, out of tune guitar, scream into a microphone and you’re a rock star.
“For God’s sake, you wanna make that your life’s work, boy?”
“Louie Louie,” they’d shout. “Sgt. Peppers,” I’d fire back.
I never would have told Uncle Louis, of course, but as I got older and began working six nights a week in nightclub cover bands, I too began developing a few doubts about this music thing. Especially after the night’s third rendition of “We are Family.”
But all I had to do during the drive home was crank up the first few bars of any album that had earned a permanent slot in my car’s CD rack (uh, cassette rack) and all doubt about the worthiness of making music vanished. If I could make music like that – music with so much skill, so much heart, smarts and honesty — I would consider my life well spent.
Jill Freeman’s exceptional new album, “A Handmade Life,” is my car’s most recent addition.
Truth is, this album sucked me in within the first few notes of the opening cut, “The Light that Leads Me There.” With only a strumming ukulele behind her, Freeman’s achingly pretty and heartfelt search for kindness and decency let me know that at the very least I was in for some fine singing and thoughtful poetry.
What I got – and continue to get (I’m listening to “Welcome to the Bonehouse” as I write) – is 54 minutes of masterfully written (Freeman), produced (Joel Wachbrit) and arranged (Freeman and Wachbrit) mini-adventures, featuring top-drawer performances by LA’s A-list players and vocal performances by Freeman that range from gorgeous to bawdy to unnerving, in a perfect melding of story-telling credibility and vocal technique.
It is not easy to categorize this music. Think guitar-oriented rhythm section with acoustic bass, violin, woodwinds, banjo, Uilleann pipes, accordion and percussion supporting a light-toned, expressive alto — all performing an alt-folk, jazz-tinged, Kurt Weill-ian version of Jungian interpretation of fairy tales.
Yeah, another one of those.
And no, I’m not kidding about the fairy tale part:
From Freeman’s website: “Fairy tales are like dreams, filled with deep symbolism about the human psyche. They carry the voice of our subconscious. I wanted to dive into those dreamy stories, swim deep, and see what I came back with. This album is the expression of what I found there.”
The result of Freeman’s Jungian dip with Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm and other fantasists whose names and stories had, until now, been gathering dust in the pre-school folds of my brain, are some of the most compelling song-stories I’ve heard. Often dark, sometimes fun and funny, always clever and literate, Freeman’s words take us to places, people and things we used to know but probably haven’t visited in a while.
Walking on Glass what a big brave girl
Rags all gone and hair all curled
Those glistening shards on your tiny feet
Coulda cut you to ribbons on the cobblestone street
Coulda sliced a heel or lost a toe
But you did the Reel, even Do-Si-Do’d
Walking on Glass… Walking on Glass
-From “Walking on Glass”
Wizard of Oz:
Where once his empty brain was clear
It now was strained with stabbing fear
And jabbing, poking thoughts – a tear
Rolls down his blank expression
The Wizard placed pins in his head
“Now, this will make you sharp!” he’d said
And so began what finally lead
To Scarecrow’s great depression
– From “Completely Unaware”
Little Red Riding Hood:
I love sitting
In my gramma’s front porch swing
We shuck peas there
And I listen to her sing
Oh her songs, they
Make me shiver as I laugh
Songs of young girls
Who are stolen on the path
Songs of beasts
That devour them
Leaving nothing where they’ve tread
But a little bit of Red
A little bit of Red
– From “A Little Bit of Red”
Gliding easily from protagonist to omniscient narrator – often within the same tune – Freeman breathes life into these wide-ranging and varied stories and characters with energy and honesty – and in a few of the more macabre tales, with downright menace. Freeman’s light, airy approach to the lines below definitely pinned the needle on my Sweeney Todd-o-meter:
Oh, you came in then, with a maiden, fair
And you killed her with barely a snap
Then chopped her in pieces, they flew everywhere
Her ring finger fell in my lap
– From “Sweetheart My Dream is Not Over”
This song works so well on so many levels, “Sweetheart My Dream is Not Over” may be the poster child of why so much of this album works.
Based on a tale from the Grimm Brothers collection, “The Robber Bridegroom,” “Sweetheart My Dream is Not Over” is a tale about fear, sadistic murder and dismemberment. Of course, Freeman and crew begin the tune with the sweetest sounding pipes you ever heard and light guiro/tambourine percussion, playing at a brisk-ish three-quarter time.
Freeman joins the fun with…
Love, I dreamed that you lived in a lonely place
And we were to marry that spring
Well, I walked through your house finding nar’ a trace
Of friendliness there, not a thing
As the verse ends, an even sweeter piano arpeggio replaces the pipes while a bird warns Freeman’s protagonist about her fiancé, the guy with the knife–
… will cut you in two, then laugh as your blood drains away…
A light childlike chorus sung in unison to a lone piano and breath percussion raises the spook factor considerably.
Ashes on daffodils, ashes on leaves, ashes on innocent clover…
The first chorus ends with just Freeman and Sara Parkins sublimely strange violin–
But sweetheart my dream is not over…
–setting the listener up for the full band’s entrance and the blood-letting to come.
It isn’t just the track and vocal working against subject matter that make this cut so darned effective — it’s the surprise of it all.
This album is full of surprises: Parkins’ wonderfully demented solo and Steve Nelson’s snaky acoustic bass on this tune; the C-tuned guitar intro (was it Wachbrit or Freeman?) and Mike Nelson’s soaring clarinet in “Letters From Murdertown”; Debra Dobkins’ innovative, driving percussion; April Hava Schenkman’s mad voices and the, uh, unusual backing vocals in “Welcome to the Bonehouse”; Candy Girard’s wonderful reel-like fiddle on “A Handmade Life”; Freeman’s piano and spoken poetry in “The Nightingale”; Wachbrit’s rhythmic banjo in the chorus of “Eyes of Fire”… Hell, even the unexpected quarter-note rest after “…banshee” and before “…heart of hearts” in that same chorus makes me smile every time I hear it.
Of course, the surprises only work because the foundation from which they leap are so fucking solid. Wachbrit’s innovative and cohesive production and consistently fine guitar playing throughout, along with solid drumming and percussion by Dobkins, Robert Perkins and Dave Beyer , Nelson’s bass, and keyboards by Tommy Reeves and John “JT” Thomas firmly ground the songs as only fine players – fine players who like each other, that is – can.
Which brings me back to Freeman’s voice. Again, it’s the strong foundation of Freeman’s technical vocal skill that frees her up to give such artistic, expressive – and often unusual – performances. Jill Freeman is truly a singer’s singer –- pitch, control, crystal clear enunciation… and my lord, her vibrato. In the hands of a lesser singer, vibrato can be an evil weapon – think Ethel Merman or Axl Rose. But Freeman’s choice and control of her vibrato, whether wide and slow, narrow and quick or nonexistent always seems to be what the performance requires. I think I’ll write a textbook titled “Jill Freeman’s Vibrato” which would soon become a required primer in every voice class, if not a N.Y. Times bestseller.
Not to mention, how many singers in the land can rhyme “essential” with “pencil” with such command?
In every respect, Jill Freeman’s “A Handmade Life” is a triumph. Everyone involved with this project should be very proud, indeed. It is a work filled with the kind of intelligence and care that used to erase my doubts about the importance of popular music on my drives home from the club.
As I slide this CD back into my car’s rack, my only wish is that Uncle Louis and my naysayer relatives were still alive, taunting me with “Louie Louie.”
“A Handmade Life,” I’d fire back.
Hear what I mean about “A Handmade Life” at JillFreeman.com