Portland Phoenix, “Anna Lombard teams with Adam Agati,” August 30, 2013
Anna Lombard teams with Adam Agati
All the Bells and whistles
ANYTHING BUT WEAK Anna Lombard goes it alone.
People generally think they know what good guitar playing sounds like. It’s all fast and stuff, right? But when guitar players listen to other guitar players, they’re generally impressed by the nuance. The tone, where the notes fall, how those notes complement what the other instruments are doing.
Similarly, people watch American Idol or The Voice and have no problem telling you what great voices all the contestants have. But so many of those singers are just yellers — belting out every song like they’ve never seen a microphone, regardless of whether the material calls for it or not. How they can consistently go top-of-the-lungs with Simon and Garfunkel songs that were essentially whispered in their original versions is hard to understand.
Truly good singers don’t need to pop the veins from their foreheads to transmit emotion and talent. It comes easy, as though the song is just flowing out of them when they open their mouths.
That’s what impressed this listener most when Anna Lombard first appeared locally on the debut Gypsy Tailwind record. She could be brassy, sure, but also subtle and supporting in harmony vocals with former bandmate Dan Connor. Her first post-Gypsy record, with Anna and the Diggs, was a departure — a display of raw power, like a gale force wind.
Well, kids, the nuance is back on Head Full of Bells, Lombard’s debut solo effort. The new album was written entirely by Adam Agati, an in-demand guitarist who was born in Portland, went to Berklee College of Music, and spent several years in Nashville doing cool things like being Miley Cyrus’ guitar teacher and touring with singer-songwriter Marc Broussard. These days, Agati lives in New York City and tours with Ludacris (yes, really) while also working with up-and-coming acts like Lombard.
The result of the Lombard-Agati pairing is an album that genre-hops, is consistently interesting, and features a number of distinctive flourishes that still leave room for Lombard’s voice to stand out.
On this eight-song record, Lombard is generally blue, thanks to an indeterminate “you” who alternately needs to leave, has already left, or is being urged to definitely stay.
But don’t expect wistful wailing. The album closer, “All for You” might open with a big sigh and play up the plaintive, but when Lombard hits you with the uppercut lyric, “your heart is a machine,” the powerful emotion is anything but weak. One of Lombard’s strengths is her ability to remind the listener what it’s like to feel something so strongly. In “Why Did You Leave Me?” she doesn’t just tear the schmuck’s pictures off the walls, she burns them.
Juxtaposed against that intensity is a playfulness from the instruments behind her, a shimmery and ringing sound that highlights the timbre of Lombard’s voice. Backing vocals from Lyle Divinsky and Sara Hallie Richardson blend seamlessly. There are hints of jazz, even in the album’s most country-pop songs, but the bridge in “Confessions” is full-on fusion, something to make the late George Duke smile down at his keyboard. It’s an especially surprising element given the John Denver-esque chorus, in which Lombard sings, “Please, love, accept what I am.”
The songs feature classical pop structures with an alternating verse and chorus; just about every song has a bridge. A few tracks, including “Leave Town” (currently in rotation on ‘CLZ) and “Life Takes,” could be a minute or so shorter. The “oh-oah” post-chorus in the former is genuinely thrilling in its first iteration, but then gets beaten a touch silly after the bridge. Similarly, Lombard executes a particularly lovely vocal descend in the chorus of the latter, but it’s not only sort of double-long, but we get it four times (plus a repeat of the opening lyrics as a bookend).
Sometimes, you should leave people wanting more. And in the case of Head Full of Bells, people will want more like the bridge in “Takes” — damn, that’s good. Like, Brandi Carlile good. This record is more “put together” than Carlile’s work, though, winding up somewhere between that kind of alt-sassiness and the more pure pop sound of Amy Allen’s last record, which also had some Nashville behind it.
This is a record made by people who knew what they were doing and executed it well. Lombard’s first outing on her own may have been a team effort, but the result is a strong album that allows a powerhouse performer to shine in her own right.
HEAD FULL OF BELLS | Released by Anna Lombard | with Lyle Divinsky | at Port City Music Hall, in Portland | Aug 16