Heather Duby's 1999 debut, Post to Wire, is still a splendid listening experience. On it the Seattle songstress used her remarkable voice to deliver intimate, haunting, and uncontrived ruminations on love and loss over layered, autumnal trip-pop arrangements co-written and produced by Pacific Northwest über-knob twiddler Steve Fisk.
There was, however, a vague sense throughout the album that Duby's vocals and the synth-based atmospherics that supported them didn't always work in tandem; that she sang over the songs rather than within them, thereby lessening their emotional impact, albeit to a small degree. Perhaps it had something to do with first-album jitters, the difficulties of imbuing machine-made music with human soul, or even a slight difference in vision between performer and producer ... who knows.
It's an observation worth noting, though, in the context of her phenomenal followup, Come Across the River, which suffers from no such dichotomy. On each of these ten compositions, Duby's rich and resonant pipes (which have been compared with those of Sarah McLachlan, Beth Orton, and Tracey Thorn) fully engage with instrumentation far removed from the electronic gauze of the last album -- piano, cello, drums, and guitar propel the action here, as artificial flourishes are wisely kept to a minimum so each song can breathe. She also demonstrates a tremendous growth in confidence, control, and audacity, which lifts her work to greater levels of intensity.
If anything, the dark edge she hinted at in her earlier work is magnified on Come Across the River. Its opener, "Make Me Some Insomnia," initiates a descent with a portentous piano melody and the melancholy bowing of cellist Lori Goldston (you'll remember her from Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York), while Duby sings wearily, "To rely on anyone is just like sinking for the fun of it." That cynical gloom carries over to the watery Goth-Gaelic ballad "Stamped Out," and is most acute in the stunning "The Rare Vavoom," a cabaret noir replete with brushed drums and a muted trumpet on which she paints a nocturnal image of herself staring forlornly out the rain-tapped window of a barren room. "I've made my offer for the last time/Don't look for me when you change your mind," she intones.
The clouds may rarely part until the reassuringly life-affirming closer, "Golden Syrup," but Come Across the River showcases the most beautiful and cathartic kind of sadness, as well as an artist who is truly coming into her own.
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