Rachel Sage – Painting of a Painting

Rachel Sage
Painting of a Painting

Already her third album, 20-something singer-songwriter Rachel Sage has wasted no time establishing herself as one of the likely leaders of the next wave of Lilith Fair ladies. Already counting Ani DiFranco among her bigger supporters, Sage has played the Lilith stage as well as opening up for DiFranco herself. While I have to admit that I missed out on the Lilith Fair scene when it was in its heydey a few years back, I can’t really say that I’ve ever regretted it. To me, most of music coming out of that scene fit just a little too comfortably into the toothless “adult contemporary” genre that should signal the death knoll of any artistically ambitious musician, but it’s possible I judged too quickly. Listening to Rachel Sage’s Painting of a Painting, I see as many of my suspicions refuted as confirmed.

Where my worst fears had the contemporary female singer-songwriters being every bit as bad as the contemporary male singer-songwriters, Rachel Sage is a smart, evocative lyricist. Even if she occasionally reaches for a profoundness that makes her seem a little condescending and uses imagery a little too florid, her songs generally run deeper than the normal disgruntled breakup songs that one might expect. Whether striking a grandmotherly pose while doling out spoonfuls of wisdom in “Satellite” or proclaiming the depravity of man in “Among All of God’s Creatures,” Sage consistently impresses with the intensity of her verse.

That being said, to my ears, this definitely conforms to what I expected sonically from the Lilith Fair crowd. No doubt, the chart success of the strangely awkward Paula Cole hit “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” had more than a little to do with my fear of the Lilith Fair set. The strange whispered reading over steady drumbeats was one of the more obnoxious moments in pop history, and unfortunately Sage decides to revive that elementary school teacher rapping on “Better From Mars,” adding a clumsy funk groove to fill out the track. Sage conforms to the stereotype a little further as the piano-playing, pop ballad-writing chanteuse, with a voice that wavers and breaks seductively and vulnerably, all the while portraying an independent and confident woman. And for the most part, Sage’s music is the kind of adult contemporary, radio-friendly pop that I usually do my best to avoid at all costs, but there is an undeniable integrity and intelligence behind the songwriting that I can’t dismiss.

Using a lush backdrop of sounds, from accordions and flutes mixing with violin and cello, Sage’s music does well to not fall into clutter. Generally intense, her songs weave through various levels of drama before reaching their emotional climax. Still, even as each song usually features at least one gorgeous chord progression, usually carried by Sage’s piano, her vocal melodies tend to be somewhat similar to each other.

But, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the time spent with this musician/painter/fashion designer/everywoman. She writes thoughtful songs with strong melodies and shows a willingness to tackle any topic she feels a passion towards. So I concede that I might have missed something the first time around with the female singer-songwriter movement. I wonder if the used CD store still has all those copies of Joan Osborne’s Relish.