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Carmen Consoli - I am just a little artist trying to express herself
George De Stefano hears, and hears from the "piccola cantatessa," an Italian pop star turned roots-explorer.

Carmen Consoli demurred when an official of the Italian Cultural Institute in Manhattan introduced her as "the most successful singer and songwriter Italy has ever produced."

"I am just a little artist trying to express herself," said the 32-year-old Sicilian, at a late September press event a couple of days before her three sold-out shows at Joe's Pub, the downtown club that has become a leading venue for cutting-edge international artists. Her New York City engagement was part of a U.S. tour to promote her current CD, Eva Contro Eva (Universal Latino). The tour, which began at the Chicago World Music Festival, also took her to Madison, Philadelphia, Toronto, Northampton, and Washington, D.C, where she played the Kennedy Center.

Consoli may call herself just a "piccola cantatessa" but for the past decade she has reigned as Italy's leading female rock star. A gifted lyricist and tunesmith, she has attracted a passionate and devoted following in her homeland with her woman-centric point of view and emotionally charged concerts. She is particularly popular with women, left-leaning youth and gays, but even older, straighter and more mainstream audiences love the self-described "bambina impertinente."

Her influence extends beyond the Italian pop music scene. Film director Gabriele Muccino got the title, as well as script ideas for his 2001 smash hit, "L'Ultimo Bacio," from one of Consoli's compositions, much as Paul Thomas Anderson found the inspiration for his "Magnolia" in songs by Aimee Mann.

An electric guitar-slinger with a big dramatic voice and charisma to spare, Consoli cuts a compelling figure, both on recordings and in concert. But she also can be alluringly subtle, exuding a slow-burn sensuality that's hard to resist.

She's in the latter mood on Eva Contro Eva, her sixth album, and the first to be issued in the United States, by Universal Latino. After a series of successful rock-oriented albums, beginning with Dueparole in 1996, she decided to change course for Eva.

cd cover "I love rock," she says, "but an electric guitar nowadays is not the sound of revolution."

On Eva she and her band trade in the amplified axes for acoustic guitars, mandolins, violins, accordions, bouzoukis, and even a string quartet. Low-key brass and woodwinds, including the friscaletto, a Sicilian flute, grace several tracks; percussion, whether traps or African and Arab hand drums, is restrained. Tempos run slow to medium, and Consoli's vocals are more conversational than declamatory.

The album, her first since L'Eccezione in 2002, shot to number one on the Italian pop charts when it was released in May 2006. But not a few of Consoli's fans were disappointed that she hadn't made another rock record. And truth to tell, Eva doesn't grab you at first listen, or even second. It instead draws you in with repeated listenings until you are completely captivated. It's a beautiful, mature work, and the most Sicilian of her recordings, "a return to my roots," as she remarked at the Italian Cultural Institute.

Consoli, in fluent English, noted the music's "Arabic scales and flattened notes, as well as Greek influences." But the lyrics - by turns ironic and empathetic, specific and allusive - also evoke the volcanic island, whose image too long has been associated with its worst aspect, a certain criminal association mytholgized in pop culture.

An Italian critic has observed that the album's 10 tracks constitute a Sicilian "Spoon River Anthology." Like Edgar Lee Masters' 1916 prose-poem about some inhabitants of a fictional Illinois town, Eva Contro Eva (Eve Against Eve) portrays a range of characters living in a particular place and time, in this case, contemporary Sicily.

"Maria Catena" (Mary Chained) is a vignette of sexism and religious intolerance, as the title character suffers the rumor-mongering of the good Catholics of her small-town parish church. The priest, swayed by the talebearers, denies her the Eucharist. Christ on the cross, observing Maria Catena's mistreatment, is pained more by the slander than by the nails piercing his flesh.

"Tutto su Eva" (All About Eve), inspired by the 1950 Bette Davis film, portrays a betrayed friendship between two women. Consoli, as the aggrieved party, chides her false friend, who, when her treachery is found out, lays on the drama, weeping and swearing on her mother that none of it's her fault. "Piccolo Cesare" takes aim at a tyrant - this "little Caesar" could be Berlusconi, but not only him -- who must suppress the "popular conscience" because it is like a contagious fever that "feeds ideals of equality." "Signor Tentenna" also is an oppressor, but rather than actively wield power, he's a passive-aggressive type whose inability to make decisions makes life miserable for all around him: wife, daughter and neglected dog.

The languorous "Sulle Rive di Morfeo" ("On Morpheus' Riverbanks") offers some of the album's most arresting imagery. The upbeat "Dolce Attesa" ("Sweet Waiting") employs a woman's false pregnancy as a metaphor for the lengths to which self-deluded people will go, in pursuit of an illusion. (Consoli introduces the song with a sample of the great Sicilian folksinger Rosa Balestrieri's "Lullaby in Time of War.") "Madre Terra," written by Consoli and the Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo, has the two women alternating verses in their respective languages, as they implore mother earth's "warm embrace" for an Africa "joyous and intense/violated, abused and offended/maternal and proud."

At her final gig at Joe's Pub, Consoli played a strong set that mixed the Eva material with some older crowd-pleasers like "Per Niente Stanca" ("Not at all Tired"), "Parole di Burro" ("Buttery Words") and "Geisha." Consoli's excellent band, led by multi-instrumentalist Massimo Roccaforte, evoked a Mediterranean version of Springsteen's "Seeger Sessions" ensemble, a mainly acoustic outfit equally capable of homespun delicacy and all-out roaring, stomping rock 'n roll.

The fact that Consoli and her musicians pulled this tour together in the wake of tragedy made their assured performance all the more remarkable. In early September the band's longtime bassist Leandro Misuriello was killed by a drunk driver after a gig in Sardinia. His replacement had just a few weeks to learn Consoli's repertoire.

Consoli closed her set on a raucous note, with a revved-up "Mala Razza," a traditional Sicilian song in which an abused worker complains to Jesus about his cruel boss. Consoli gave a fine solo performance of the song at the Italian Cultural Institute, but she killed with it at Joe's Pub, the band alternating a pounding rock backbeat with tarantella rhythms as Consoli spat out the lyrics' admonition to "grit your teeth and fight back!"

Carmen Consoli, along with Avion Travel from Caserta, is one of the few contemporary Italian artists to tour outside Europe, other than easy listening pop stars like Laura Pausini and Eros Ramazzotti, and classical kitschmeister Andrea Bocelli. There's no reason why Consoli, infinitely more challenging and accomplished, shouldn't be successful on the world music circuit. Eva Contro Eva could be the recording that does it for her.

There is the language issue, but that hasn't kept Cesaria Evora, Buena Vista Social Club, Amadou and Mariam, and many other international artists from connecting with English-speaking audiences. (Consoli introduces and explains her songs in inglese, which helps.) Some savvy marketing, and the support of big names like Elvis Costello, who came to one of the Joe's Pub shows and followed up with a fan letter to the singer, just might translate into bigger things for Sicily's piccola cantatessa. - George De Stefano

CD available from cdroots

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