Rachael Sage, Ann Hampton Callaway, Melissa Etheridge, Jill Sobule, and more
by Gregg Shapiro
Hot on the stylish heels of her stylish New Destination EP, queer singer/songwriter Rachael Sage has released the full-length album Blue Roses (MPress), a definite career high. The new direction hinted at in the four songs on the EP is fully realized on Blue Roses’ 13 tracks. Sage wisely included a pair of songs from the EP, “Misery’s Grace” and the marvelous “Wax,” on the new disc. Longtime fans will be happy to hear that Sage hasn’t abandoned her trademark keyboard work or her distinctive vocal style or phrasing, as you can plainly hear on “Happiness (Maddie’s Song).” What is most evident here is a more mature songwriting style heard on “English Tea,” “Barbed Wire,” “Newspaper,” and the trans tune “Used to Be My Girl” (which is reminiscent of Shawn Colvin). The cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless,” a duet with Judy Collins that closes the disc, is simply stunning.
Speaking of covers, jazz/cabaret vocalist Ann Hampton Callaway pays homage to one of her heroes on the disc From Sassy to Divine: The Sarah Vaughan Project (After 9/Shanachie). Recorded live at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Callaway reimagines a set of Vaughan standards, including “Misty” and “Someone to Watch Over Me,” as well as a pair of tunes by queer songwriters such as Billy Strayhorn (“Chelsea Bridge”) and Stephen Sondheim (“Send in the Clowns”). More than anything, Callaway sounds fantastic, taking ownership of the songs while still respecting Vaughan’s versions.
Possibly because it’s her first album on her own label imprint, This Is M.E. (M.E. Records) by Melissa Etheridge finds the lesbian rock goddess stretching her musical limbs in various directions. More than 25 years since her debut record was released, Etheridge still sounds good and continues to write catchy pop songs for the Dinah Shore Weekend set and others. Slightly bombastic opener “I Won’t Be Alone Tonight” sounds both fresh and familiar, while “Take My Number” recalls the best of Etheridge’s down-home comfort tunes. “A Little Hard Hearted,” with pleasing vocals by Neyla Pekarek, is a reminder of Etheridge’s history of heartbreak. Of course, “Ain’t That Bad” and “All the Way Home” sound like they would have fit perfectly on Etheridge’s self-titled first disc, and “Like a Preacher” and “A Little Bit of Me” play with interesting beats.
Dottie’s Charms (Pinko), by the underrated, brilliant, and witty singer/songwriter Jill Sobule (who recently made it to Jeopardy clue status), is one of the most intriguing concept albums you will ever hear. With the charming Dottie’s Charms, Sobule, who has made a name for herself as a collaborator (see The Jill and Julia Show, featuring Sobule and Julia Sweeney), has created her most collaborative effort to date. The 11 songs—with music co-written by Sobule and queer musician/composer Fred Hersch, Dan Wilson, Mike Viola, and others—tell the story of the charms on an old-school charm bracelet (not one of those tacky Pandora confections) found by Sobule. For lyrics, Sobule turned to writer friends Luc Sante, Mary Jo Salter, Nina Mehta, Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody, David Hadju, and others to create the right words for each charm. Listeners are sure to be charmed by “My Chair,” the union anthem “Women of Industry,” “Statue of Liberty,” “O Canada,” “The Mezuzah,” and the incredible “Wedding Ring.”
Unless you listened to Christian rock at the end of the 20th century or the early part of the 21st, the name Jennifer Knapp probably won’t have much significance. However, things changed for Knapp, at least in terms of her LGBT following, when she came out as a lesbian and released her Letting Go disc in 2010. Now signed to Ani DiFranco’s label, Knapp has returned with Set Me Free (Righteous Babe). The 10 original tunes—including standouts “Remedy,” the rocking “Why Wait,” “The Tale,” and “The End”—are firmly based in the singer/songwriter tradition. Knapp’s respectful reading of Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love” is an added bonus.
With its fertile music scene, Chicago continues to be home to many talented LGBT artists. Emily White is one such performer. Her strong new album Staking Flags in the Valley (Fresh Squeezed Productions) is bolstered by smart and memorable songs such as “Crooked Teeth,” “Black Highway,” “Songs Fall,” “Starve the Dog,” “Arkansas,” and “Go Now.” Now’s your chance to find out about one of Chicago’s best-kept secrets.
Cool Choices (Hardly Art) by S, the solo project by Jenn Ghetto of Carissa’s Wierd [sic], is definitely cool. Opening with the lo-fi piano/vocal track “Losers,” the disc continues with knockout numbers including “Like Gangbusters!,” the subtly funky “White House,” the gorgeous “Remember Love” and “Pacific,” the vintage electro of “Tell Me,” and the retro Riot Grrrl of “Balderdash.”
The prolific Sean Wiggins is (bare) back with Clothing Optional Fridays (seanwiggins.com). Backed by her rocking band lone goat, Wiggins, who has a powerful set of pipes, performs this set of original tunes (many of which are blues-based) with flair and energy. The country-influenced “Thank God for My Stalker” and the swinging “You Are the One” are especially good.
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.