Don't be surprised if you're immediately hooked by the opening notes of "Moment of Forgiveness."
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Warm, open-hearted and honest - with an instantly memorable melody that lies somewhere between folk and soul - the single is the perfect kick-off track for Become You, the Indigo Girls' new Epic album and arguably the best work of their remarkable two-decade career.
It wouldn't be fair to call this a "back-to-basics" recording, since that would short-change the enormous creative growth they're demonstrated on their previous eight full-length albums and career-spanning anthology. Instead, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers approached Become You as a chance to summon their expansive artistic vocabulary and use it to more fully explore the core elements that have given their music such enduring appeal - rich acoustic instruments, pitch-perfect harmonies and lyrics that reflect their ever-deepening understanding of themselves and the world, but always leave room for listeners to join them on the journey.
To round out their sound, the Girls turned to their versatile touring group: Carol Isaacs (Hammond B-3, Wurlitzer, piano, accordion, penny whistle, recorder, percussion), Clare Kenny (acoustic and electric bass) and Brady Blade (drums and percussion). The result: a beautifully constructed folk-pop album that shows off the Indigos' contrasting but complimentary songwriting styles, but with an organic feel that only musicians with an acute sensitivity to each other can achieve.
"When we were learning the new songs for Become You, at first we weren't even thinking about drums or accompaniment - we just worked real hard on our guitar parts and harmonies so that the songs stood on their own," says Saliers. "But when we invited the band to come in, we got so inspired that we ended up using their parts."
"A lot of it was cut live, with all of us set up in the room, and the purity of the songs really comes through."
Their last Epic release, 1999's Come On Now Social, was a more high-profile, genre-jumping project, recorded partially in London with a new co-producer, John Reynolds, and such guests as Joan Osborne, Sheryl Crow and Natacha Atlas. But even before its release, Saliers and Ray were mulling over the idea of an acoustic-based recording - waiting for the right batch of songs and the right circumstances to pull it off.
Become You, which was recorded in their hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, finally gives them a chance to bring it all back home. Settling into one studio meant they could go to their own houses each night, spend time with family and friends, and reflect on the experiences that inspired some of these tunes. And it made it easier for old colleagues such as Michelle Malone to drop by and add her distinctive backing vocals to some of the tracks.
The resulting unaffected performances are complimented by the deft touch of Peter Collins, producer of Indigo Girls' platinum album, Rites of Passage in 1992 and the Grammy-nominated Swamp Ophelia in 1994. The crystalline mix is by Bob Clearmountain, who's worked with everyone from Bruce Springsteen and The Who to Shelby Lynn and Rufus Wainwright.
Saliers credit Collins with offering "a vision for the songs that we didn't have." From his suggestions came the hushed Latin vibe of "You've Got To Show" with a Stan Getz-inspired sax solo by Dan Higgins, and Carol Isaacs' accordion motif on the title song. Ray notes that much of the credit for the exceptionally clear and balanced sound should go to engineer Glenn Matullo: "I think he's the best I've ever worked with at recording vocals and acoustic instruments."
The twelve songs on Become You are evenly divided between Emily and Amy compositions. Ray wrote the first single, "Moment of Forgiveness," in a ten-minute, backstage rush, thinking about what it takes for two people to come together after a long estrangement and then setting the lyrics to a simple, straightforward melody. When Isaacs' came up with her keyboard hook in the studio, that's when Ray felt the track solidify. "That's really the song," she says. "It's less about what I'm saying and more about recording in a soul tradition or Carole King tradition with this riff."
"Nuevas Seņoritas," her evocative ballad that closes the album, is the oldest song here - inspired by a 1997 trip to Chiapas, Mexico. "It was written in honor of the women who fight for change with the Zapatistas," Ray says. "I just started writing some stuff down in my journal, then came back and wrote the song later."
"Become You," the title track, builds its unforgettable chorus on a subtle metaphor - Ray's struggle to reconcile and hang onto her Southern identity in a region still haunted by racism. "I tried to personalize these ideas, to portray differences with my neighbors in my own rural area," she says. "A one-to-one relationship is a microcosm of these bigger social relations. To me, it's all about how you come to understand another person, how you can respect their humanity even when you think their position is deplorable."
In 2001, while Amy toured behind her solo album Stag, Emily enjoyed some time off. "I had a good breathing period to collect my thoughts," she notes. "My new songs like 'Deconstruction,' 'Collecting You' and 'Our Deliverance' are reflective. They capture an evolution in my approach to life - they're the songs of me, a 38-year-old rather than a 25-year-old. This is really the first time I felt this good about a bunch of new songs without hearing it from someone else."
"Hope Alone," which features a shimmering string arrangement by Jerry Hey, was co-written by Saliers with Annie Roboff. The two met during the Indigos' trip to Cuba in 1999 and their collaboration is only the second co-written song to ever appear on an Indigos album.
Whether it's staged at a campus coffeehouse or a sold-out Madison Square Garden, each Indigo Girls' show conveys their passion for fresh musical ideas, their respect for their audience and each other, their commitment to peace and social justice, and especially their unflagging enthusiasm for live performance.
"We toured for a month in August 2001 - just the two of us - and I had as much fun as I've had playing any shows in our whole career," says Saliers. "We're really pleased with Become You. It will be a joy to play these songs for people."
When they released their independent debut album, Strange Fire, in 1987, the Indigos were part of a new breed of singer-songwriters and independent folk-rock artists, many of whom have subsequently dropped off the radar screen. But more importantly, just as many rising artists have since found their voice, inspired in part by the Indigos' ongoing example.
Ray credits part of their longevity to their fans, who are as far from fickle they could be - sharing songs with each other, learning to sing and play the tunes themselves, and driving miles to catch another show.
But that's only half the equation. Become You is proof again that Emily Saliers and Amy Ray invest their songs with lasting appeal by being true to what inspires them. And in so doing, they've created music that is authentic enough to avoid artifice, smart enough to grow with us and trusting enough to appeal to our best selves.
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