Blemishes Be Damned

Why do certain people--quite often brainy, scruffy, and with a collection of mulled-over heartaches to match their accumulations of scratched vinyl and Fiestaware--love Amy Rigby with a nearly irrational devotion? Could it be the way she transformed herself from a retiring brunette backup singer in the 1980s country-gal band The Last Roundup, and later a wide-eyed cutie strumming her acoustic guitar in that twee trio the Shams, into a tart-tongued, bleached blond, leopard-print wearing boho chick for the late '90s, who lays open her wounds with a wink?

Is it because she cheerfully mocks her (younger, male) bandmates on stage, then turns on her heel and spouts out another tale of romantic humiliation and disgrace with throaty assurance, whispering or hiccuping a key word here or there for emphasis? Might the devotion lie in the way she labels the state of being over 35 and a woman ever so precisely, with the word "invisible"? Or because she's unafraid to be a tiny bit of a dork sometimes?

Rigby combines formidable aural craftsmanship with blunt, self-deprecating honesty. Unlike other female singer-songwriters who play coy with autobiography, she just puts it out there, blemishes be damned, and lets you draw the obvious conclusions. Her much-praised 1996 debut Diary of a Mod Housewife tracked the dissolution of her marriage to ex-dB Will Rigby, crushes on cute clerks in bookstores, and the need for a newly single mom with a droning temp job to bust loose in shameless yearning.

Now it's two years later and she's moved on, fashioning the next chapter out of what, stealing a term from Gail Sheehy, she calls her "middlescence" ("time of life between arrested development and hard-won maturity"): the impossibility of combining parenting and dating with grace ("What I Need"); the retrospective angst that sets in when you realize your postcollegiate cultural map is 15 years old ("The Summer of My Wasted Youth"); the awareness that any attempt to create a semisolid existence will be thwarted by the cruelties of money and time ("Raising the Bar"). And oh yeah, the recognition that the shabby-chic kick of thrift shopping has gone stale, becoming less a badge of honor than a mortifying necessity. Declares Rigby in "As Is": "See that skirt with the stain on the collar/Piece of crap but it's only a dollar/Check out this sweater with unraveling edges/Just the thing for jumping off ledges."

If Rigby admits to occasional fits of despair, both tongue-in-cheek and not so, at least she's retained her sense of humor. Even better, she's decided to let her music achieve what quotidian reality so often forbids--exploration. Rigby and her producer, former Cars-member Elliot Easton, turn the songs into low-rent vacations to distant lands. "Dirty Bridge," in which Rigby envisions ending an island romance, has a sensuous lilt and crestinghorns. "Laboratory of Love" deploys a theremin to satirize the truly sci-fi futility of amorous experiments, while "Invisible" boasts a low-key funky organ and slip-sliding guitar. "Calling Professor Longhair" fantasizes a New Orleans piano bar, all the better to take the chill off the facts that the mercury reads "seventeen in Buffalo" and the car's stalling again.

Sometimes Rigby goes full throttle and raves with overdetermination, as on the speedily fierce "Raising the Bar" and the beautiful but ultimately toostomping "Ivory Tower"; the results feel forced. Occasionally her downtown girl vista feels a little narrow, even self-congratulatory in its honorable limitations. But all is forgiven when Rigby nails her melancholia, recalling a heartbreak circa 1983 in "Summer of My Wasted Youth." It's not only a love affair that's being mourned, but the inability to see and savor then what now seems so simple and perfect: pecan waffles on the roof, falling in love with Patsy Cline, cheap beer imbibed at Polish bars, a trip to the photo booth resulting in a black-and-white strip that freezes giddy faces, blissfully unaware of the complications to come.

More flawlessly realized still is "What I Need," the strongest articulation of necessity on a record that consistently foregrounds the difficulty a grown woman meets in attaining a steady income, decent clothes, flattering glances, a functioning motor vehicle, and sex. In what can only be called the best song Sam Phillips never wrote (and one that includes nouns that would never appear in a Sam Phillips song, such as "homework," "laundry," and "rocking chair"), Rigby describes inviting over a boyfriend only to be faced with the bedtime demands of two kids. Most radical is the way Rigby turns her swooning, rapturous chorus into an address not to the object or her putative desire, but to the children standing in the way of consummation: "What I need what I need what I need/Is for you to disappear/But still be here/When he goes home." Even this year's prime chronicler of the fortysomething woman's aches and regrets, Miss Lucinda Williams, can't top that one.

Although Rigby gently shifts the experiences in "What I Need" to a persona not specifically her own (she's got just one kid), there remains the implicit presence of her soon-to-be 10-year-old daughter, Hazel. You can practically hear a background groan of "Mo-o-om" as the duo finger the polyester on the back-of-the-store racks in "As Is," or picture the girl's realization of her growing allure in "Invisible," where Rigby laments the way her daughter garners all the compliments on the beach. ("I said, 'she's cute, all right, I hope your sunburn peels tonight.'")

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