Memphis Means Music Month: Amy Lavere
Ed. Note: October is Memphis Means Music Month, so each week this month I’ll bring you a post about a current Memphis musician. Today I’m happy to present this guest post by John McHugh, who reviewed Amy LaVere’s latest album, Runaway’s Diary, released earlier this year.
Runaway’s Diary is a semi-autobiographical concept album that gives half-invented snapshots of LaVere’s life as teenage runaway from her Michigan hometown. It’s a disjointed sequence of three-minute scenes that explore alienation, restlessness, homesickness, and possible pasts. Produced by North Mississippi Allstars leader and ex-Black Crowe, Luther Dickinson, the album marks a sonic departure from her previous releases, favoring an earthier sound that provides an open and wonderfully textured sonic slate for LaVere.
Leading track “Rabbit” begins in medias res with the narrator caught in a moment of sober realization at how far out she’s drifted, asking an old vagabond about finding a way back home or whether there’s even a home to return to. Elsewhere, LaVere draws on early feelings of alienation from the folks in her hometown, the intoxicating effect of rock 'n' roll on teenage recklessness, little fragmental recollections of sitting lonesome and unwanted in a small-town flurry, and dreaming herself and a crush into the songs she hears on a transistor radio.
It’s a genre-jumping adventure, the dry-heat surf noir of “Last Rock N’ Roll Boy to Dance” – whose protagonist finds a thrill in rejecting the shame she’s been told to feel for taking him home – leads straight into the Buddy Holly-tinged sock hop of “Big Sister”, a track that finds LaVere deepest into the childish persona she toys with throughout the album. You can all but hear it playing at the Wiles-Smith Drug Store sixty years back.
The lyricism throughout is evasively clever, turning new phrases out of common cliches. It is an intentionally elementary way of writing; that LaVere has learned her voice (both the literal thing and her authorial tone) well enough to delve fearlessly into this sort of persona, which could easily come off as twee or naive, turns out to be a sign of impressive maturity. In “Snowflake”, the quiet heart of the album, she follows lines like “All the people walking ‘round were looking round / Still no one looked at me” with “The conscious avoidery / Yeah that’s a word to me”, a quick break of character to wink at the imperfect grammar.
These little details are all over the album and make it a joy to listen for anyone willing to look for them. Both lyrically and musically, this is an album that rewards time and concentration, not that the casual listener can’t have a good time with it. To paraphrase Van Morrison, it ventures into the slipstreams and wanders, wonders, but it also grooves and jives and struts.
The album received rave write-ups from The New York Times, The Guardian, Allmusic, No Depression, American Songwriter, and the WSJ. LaVere even received an exclusive feature on NPR’s All Songs Considered hosted by the Dean of Rock Critics himself, Robert Christgau. And it’s no wonder. Runaway’s Diary is one of the year’s best, and I don’t mean just of Memphis records. But don’t take my word for it – go pick it up at your local record store today.
About the Author
John McHugh is a recent graduate of Rhodes College. Born into a musical family in Nashville, he was raised on the sounds of Memphis soul and rock ’n’ roll. He lives on Kwik Check’s bi bim bop, loves to spend hours flipping through records at Shangri-La, and firmly believes that Otis Redding was the greatest singer to ever walk the earth. Check out his blog Blame It On The Stones.