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Courtney Marie Andrews’ “Honest Life”

This is a brilliant release in all kinds of ways. Musicianship, arrangement, recording. Each one of those is wonderfully on display. It’s there in the details, such as the strings entering on “Only in My Mind,” and then the pizzicato, or the way she sings the word “Barcelona.” There are harmonies added to isolated phrases that make you think, wow, that’s brilliant. So beautiful in themselves, but also so delightful in the level skill that they belie, and the way they help support and propel the narrative.

The writing is the thing that stands out, even given the quality of the setting and the skill. Ask anyone about writing songs and, more often than not, they’ll say something about a hook. But a hook isn’t songwriting, it’s marketing. Selling something. Writing, good writing, tells something. Though it’s even more than that. There’s a pleasure that comes from finding the structures-, in realizing the care and the complexity that went into crafting these pieces. There’s a delight that comes from seeing something that is just so brilliantly constructed. (Have you listened to Lightfoot’s “Great Canadian Railroad Trilogy” recently? It’s as much a marvel as it ever was.)

The first track, “Rookie Dreaming,” sneaks in, and just when you’re doubting it, it delights you. Before we get to the confessional voice—“I was movin’ too fast ” etc.—she’s already broadening the narrative, gesturing to a universal: “I was singing with the choir on the train/I was a traveling man/I did not yet have a name/I was a 1960s movie/I was a one-night love story.” Certainly, that’s the thing about confessional songwriting. It’s not about grabbing a guitar and telling us about your day. It might sound like that. “The wind is in from Africa/last night I couldn’t sleep … “ But it’s not. Andrews clearly knows that.

She often has the diction of Joni Mitchell, the full vowels and clipped Rs and Ts. She adds her own harmonies, as Mitchell did, and adds similar ornaments, uses similar phrasing. Most importantly, of course, is a similar attention to narrative. Like Mitchell, it might sound like she’s telling you about what happened last week, as in “Table for One” when she sings “Table for one/I’ve got no one I’m waiting on/I just pulled into town an hour ago/from the streets of Houston/to this diner in Ohio.” But she’s not, and it’s the idea that comes to mind, not the details. By the end of album, we don’t know her any more than we did at the beginning. Because it’s not about her. It’s about us.

I know that music isn’t a race, but if this album doesn’t win some awards this year, I don’t know what.

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