The Good: Great voice, Good music, Poignant and powerful lyrics, Album arrangement
The Bad: Male guest vocals backing some tracks
The Basics: In a solid studio album, the Indigo Girls give great vocals for some of the most compelling musical poetry of the last decade.
The first time I encountered the music of the Indigo Girls, I was in college and an a cappella group one of my friends was in did a rendition of "Least Complicated." I was dazzled by it and went and listened to the original. Or perhaps it was a friend of mine in high school who put "Galileo" on a mix tape (back when our mixes were still on tapes!). Either way, for several years now, I've been thinking the Indigo Girls might be worth my time and attention. Recently, I found a lot of value in their two-disc live set 1200 Curfews, but I had not found a studio album that I would recommend, at least not enthusiastically. That was until I listened to the group's recording Swamp Ophelia.
Swamp Ophelia, in addition to having a great title, is an eleven-track celebration to the power of women as the Indigo Girls seem expertly able to deliver. At their core, the Indigo Girls as middle-aged women Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, are hardly girls. Their music is a more mature, pop-folk-rock style that appeals to young feminists, old hippies and generally those who appreciate decent music that one is able to hear and understand. Swamp Ophelia is defined by straightforward, articulate singing backed by guitars (mostly acoustic) and other light instrumentals.
For a studio album, this has the quality and fresh sound of an intimate-venue live performance. This has a very direct folk-rock tenor to it with the vocals of Saliers and Ray harmonizing effortlessly to create memorable songs for the listener. If you've never heard an Indigo Girls song before, one spin of Swamp Ophelia will provide you with music that endures in your mind. If you hear these songs once, you'll remember most of them, they resonate so well. But the real challenge would be to listen to the album only once.
Ray and Saliers write all of songs on Swamp Ophelia, though not together and Saliers outnumbers Ray by one track. They both play guitars on various tracks as well and they receive a production credit on the album, so this is very much their vision that is being presented. This is music they want to make and it has a timeless, solid quality to it that instantly catches the listener.
Amy Ray tends to create the songs that are closer to rock and roll, the louder end of the folk spectrum. Her song "Fugitive" opens the album with a direct declaration of the demons lovers hide and her song "This Train Revisited" enthusiastically strums the album to a close. She is a competent and gifted writer, evoking strong imagery with her tight poetics. The album's name comes from a line in "Touch Me Fall," where she writes and sings ". . . Are you hiding / I am hiding / Cyprus moon / Bald in June/ Like the granite in a stream / Swamp Ophelia / I'm torn down." It's a beautiful song and her poetry is compelling and put to music it is simply gorgeous.
Saliers and Ray harmonize wonderfully, which makes them a group as opposed to solo artists performing together. On their performance of "Power Of Two," it's hard to imagine that they aren't together (which they've never been) when they sing, ". . .Now we're talking about a difficult thing and your eyes are getting wet / But I took us for better and I took us for worse and don't you forget it / . . . We'll look at them together / Then we'll take 'em apart / Adding up the total of a love that's true / Multiply life by the power of two." There is no other group I can think of where the women harmonize so perfectly.
It's Emily Saliers whose writing impresses me most on Swamp Ophelia, though. While I was biased toward "Least Complicated" coming in (a great post-break-up song if there ever was one!) but I was unprepared for how great "Language Or The Kiss" would be. I mean, usually when one goes into an album already loving a song, whatever track follows that song usually suffers some. If anything, "Language Or The Kiss" tops "Least Complicated" with the beautiful evocation of the lines ". . . Laughter like a language I once spoke with ease / But I'm made mute by the virtue of decision I choose / Most of your life goes on without me / Oh the fear I've known / That I might reap the praise of strangers and end up on my own . . ." It's beautiful and poignant and that is the power of the vocals and of this album.
This is a strongly feminine album and the only real detraction from that is the use of male vocalists for backing vocals. I've had this problem with other strong female artists (Dar Williams took a hit on her album Mortal City, reviewed here!, for much the same reason) before and while I don't have a problem with mixed groups (at all!), when one is presenting as powerful feminine perspective, the reliance on men to fill a backing vocal sometimes can seem cheap. This is the case on "Dead Man's Hill" where the reliance on the men's backing vocals overwhelm a bit too much.
Otherwise, this is a strong, smart album and it is worth your time and attention. It's one that if you listen to, you'll likely want to buy. The best track is the amazing "Language Or The Kiss" and the weak track is "Dead Man's Hill."
For other albums by The Indigo Girls works, check out my reviews of:
Shaming Of The Sun
Come On Now Social
For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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