Sue Garner – Shadyside

Sue Garner

It’s a crying shame that after 20 or so years of furtive creativity, Sue Garner still isn’t better known, even within American art-rock circles. As a veteran of both the Athens, Ga. and New York music scenes, Sue Garner has demonstrated her tireless work ethic as a past member of The Shams, Fish And Roses, ex-Matador-affiliates Run On, and most recently with her solo and semi-solo projects.
Ostensibly Garner’s second solo album after 1998’s low-key To Run More Smoothly (if we exclude 2000’s Still, dual-billed with husband Rick Brown, that is), Shadyside should help raise her profile considerably. Building on the foundations of lilting balladry and enticing pop-experiments laid down on its prequel, Garner’s solo sequel is an arrogance-free leap forward. A record that unfurls itself with a veritable smorgasbord of styles, allowing Garner’s songs to emote their sentiments in roomy but melodic arrangements.
So “Come Again,” one of the Shadyside’s many high-points, finds Garner gliding gorgeously through country-rock terrain, making you think how good Tanya Donelly would sound fronting Freakwater. “Day Out” and “Handful of Grapes,” on the other hand, are blues-rock nuggets with twisted offbeat tempos; as if PJ Harvey were re-cutting Rid of Me with Yo La Tengo as her backing band. The astonishingly pretty slow-mo balladry of “Don’t Still the Flicker” and “These Old Walls” fuse the spaced-out strains of Tara Jane O’Neil’s In The Sun Lines with the earthy grace of the Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Session. Elsewhere, the sparse solo-acoustic rendition of folk legend Michael Hurley’s “Paint a Design” sounds like something rejected from Cat Power’s Covers Record for being too upbeat.
The weirdest musical permutations are found on “Yes” and “Beach,” which both resemble Missy Elliott or Jennifer Lopez tracks that have been deconstructed and re-recorded with half-broken drum machines on a 4-track with near-flat batteries. The two tracks bring a fascinating flavour to a record rippling open with ideas, challenging preconceptions about how underground musicians can assimilate ideas from the mainstream as well as the avant-garde.
The eclecticism would not have been possible, however, without Garner’s impeccable handpicked supporting cast. Aforementioned long-time collaborator and hubbie Rick Brown delivers some fantastic and unconventional percussive beds that mark him as an equal of John McEntire (Tortoise / The Sea and Cake). Yo La Tengo’s James McNew swings in with a mixture of soothing and serrated guitar playing, Jim O’Rourke (Gastr Del Sol / Sonic Youth) provides some bass and studio-trickery, Doug Wieselman (Shudder to Think) takes charge of clarinet and harmonica duties, and Marc Ribot (Elvis Costello / Tom Waits session man) contributes some lush electric guitar fills.
Musical variance and virtues aside, Shadyside is also blessed with a refreshing lyrical approach. Six of the songs are built-up from the words of published poet Fay Hart and erstwhile bandmates Jonathan Thomas and Amanda Uprichard. Besides rising to the challenge of building sympathetic musical settings to wrap around other writers’ words, Garner also seems to have upped the ante for her own self-penned songs, also sharing space here. And rather than let the other writers’ words stick out like swollen body parts next to her own, Garner keeps them all close to her singular character, curling them all out with her warm and adaptable New York hipster meets Southern cowgirl twang.
Quibbles and qualms? Reservations and reason to complain? Not very many, as it happens. Though if we must nit-pick, you could certainly say that the album is rather ill sequenced. It feels a little top-heavy, with the more immediate pop-slanted songs occupying the space from start to just over middle, leaving the album’s last, more experimental third seeming a little dense and overwhelming. In the days of vinyl prevalence, with distinct Sides A and B, the running order might have seemed more logical, but given that Shadyside is a CD-only release, a little more thought should have been given to its continuous flow.
Aside from the need for some judicious CD reprogramming, Shadyside is a thoroughly assured adult affair that doesn’t scrimp on playfulness or adventurous songwriting. It’s an album packed with eclectic and experimental pop, driven by a smart head and a strong heart. If there’s any justice left in this world, it should give Sue Garner a one-way ticket out of the obscurity ghetto.