Cindy Lee Berryhill
Live recordings, such as Cindy Lee Berryhill's fifth release, "Living Room 16," generally enjoy the advantage of previous audience recognition of both artist and material, a ready-made market, and often constitute add-on experiences for existing fans. How different are the performances from those on the studio albums? What's the stage patter like? "Living Room 16," however, is a rarer sort of live recording. Its production is clear, simple, and stripped down, just Cindy Lee, self-accompanied on guitar, keyboard, and the occasional harmonica, and Renata Brat of the backing band on Berryhill's 1994 "Garage Orchestra" release on cello. As such, it serves as a fine introduction to one of the quirkiest, yet consistently pleasant and engaging, of contemporary singer-songwriters.
The first track, "Diane," illustrates Berryhill's most fetching attributes. Her friendly, enthusiastic opening remarks ground this peculiar musical his-and-herstory of a bass-playing transvestite, her vocal returning to trumpet-like "bah-bahs," the whole strange song adhering to a wide-eyed acceptance of the quotidian fantastic, never sinking to stridency. Berryhill's ongoing affair with seventies pop surfaces in "Family Tree," a surprisingly touching spoken introduction relating the Brady Bunch to the complexities of modern families, leading to a keyboard bounce which could have issued from Burt Bacharach, the loss and gain of step-relations equally if bittersweetly accepted. In "Damn, I Wish I Was a Man," Berryhill's vocal cuteness slyly cushions her sardonic observations on gender double standards, her guitar and harmonica redolent of a Dylan talking blues; when an audience member walks in just as she yodels "damn," Berryhill seamlessly interrupts the song to explain.
"This Way Up" is straightforward, melodic pop, Berryhill's reedy vocal expressing hope; never underestimate the art required to pen a truly compelling pop song. Seven or eight of her favorite songs, collected as the "UFO Suite," apply Berryhill's narrative talents to the puzzlements of stalled cars in New Mexico, abductions, and ankle implants, Brat's cello providing dramatic special effects. But for a truly eccentric musical narrative, "Gary Handeman," the tale of a quest for purloined footwear, can't be beaten. The name of the shoe abductor, who gets his, is incanted repeatedly as chorus, and when she forgets the lyrics, Berryhill first asks the audience for help, and then launches into an extended, and welcome, recap of the song's convoluted plot. This song alone repays dozens of listenings. "Witness" provides a darker narrative and lots of excuses, but Berryhill's emotive presentation and smooth river of words drive forward through the mystery.
There are a few new songs on "Living Room 16," including "Witness" and "This Way Up," but most others appear on prior studio recordings. If you like what you hear on this record, a near certainty, four Berryhill studio albums, dating from the late eighties, await your pleasure. - Jim Foley