LORI CULLEN WITH SEXSMITH SWINGHAMMER SONGS
“How strange is this life?”
Oh, what joy it is to feel physical pleasure while listening to an album. Lori Cullen’s Sexsmith Swinghammer Songs is an audiophile’s dream, and this wonderful, unexpected jazz/folk album has sneaked its way into contention for one of the best albums of the year.
Sonically, it sits comfortably among Getz and Gilberto, Joni Mitchell, and Nick Drake, and is the closest thing to perfect production you can find all year, with richly textured instrumentation vibrant enough to hit your solar plexus but restrained enough to bring serenity. The silence sparkles, mixing the instruments in at just the right volume, and floating you up on good vibes.
Which is to say nothing of the subtle, nuanced, and rich compositions by Ron Sexsmith and Kurt Swinghammer, written especially for Cullen. The keyboards are sweet and delicate; the bass rumbles like a playful uncle; the guitar holds the line with bright, compelling, chord changes. The minute movements, one-note chord changes, and tiny subliminal movements that barely register consciously take on the weight of revelation. Once you reach the final track, you’ve taken a journey, winding and complicated, without ever knowing you took a step off the path.
“She turns major chords to diminished on a dime, and the moments of joy and sorrow in the lyrics are done with hairpin precision.”
Above it all is Cullen herself: her voice–like this album–hides its power within the gentle, flowing compositions. The moments of breathiness suggest the moments of power. On tracks like “Strange is this Life,” you get the full range of her abilities, from barely voiced lullaby to full-strength mezzo-soprano. She turns major chords to diminished on a dime, and the moments of joy and sorrow in the lyrics are done with hairpin precision. At no point do the overtly optimistic turns on tracks such as “New Love” feel at odds with the overtly pessimistic “Face of Emily,” or “Beginners Luck.” Each song is necessary, stays as long as it needs to, then, waves goodbye.
For me, listening to this record is like watching the sunset cross your lover’s face as it falls into night, on the beach. It’s that specific shade of orange too beautiful for daytime, touched just-so with gold and shadow that magnifies in the presence of the face it falls onto: balanced, beautiful, and slightly melancholy. The only imperfections are the last few tracks, which emotionally stutter just a little. Unfortunately, the previous balance achieved compounds the noticeability; they are not bad, but they do not shine quite as bright. But goddamn, it feels nice to unabashedly enjoy an album for once.
Until I ride on carousels of summertime