Haunting Lyrical Intensity from Jodi Shaw

Songwriter Jodi Shaw’s chamber-pop song cycle, In Waterland, is being re-released mid-month. By “song cycle,” that is to say theme and variations; forty years ago, people used to call these things concept albums. The obvious comparison is Aimee Mann, both in terms of brooding, wounded persona and purist, artsy pop sensibility. Shaw plays the album release show on May 15 at 7 PM at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe: if smart, biting, literate lyrics, catchy tunes and unselfconsciously attractive vocals are your thing, you should go see her.

The arrangements manage to be stately and often majestic yet very simple, just Shaw’s piano and nuanced vocals along with terse string arrangements, shimmering guitar atmospherics and occasional low-key rhythm. Swimming is the central motif here, and it’s traumatic. It’s not known whether Shaw – pictured in a bathing cap, in water up to her neck on the album cover – is the strong but fading, emotionally depleted swimmer in the album’s harrowing title track, or whether she has other feelings for the water. That’s a major part of the album’s appeal.

The opening cut, simply titled Swim, sets the tone, the blithe bounce of the melody ultimately unable to conceal the hopelessness of the lyric, sharks circling as a “sound and steady ship” departs, promising to return someday to rescue the woman in the water. Cruelly surreal and evocative, The Witch (not the Sonics song, or the one by Donovan for that matter) pictures a former beauty all alone and facing a hostile, clueless crowd of conformists who’d gladly burn her as their forefathers would have done three hundred years ago. Jack and Jill takes a hypnotic post-Velvets melody and spices it up with piano and some watery tremolo guitar: Shaw’s perplexed narrator can’t figure out why the guy let go of the girl’s hand after the two had successfully made it down the hill.

The torchy Mystery of Love comes as a surprise, with its jaunty gypsy/cabaret vibe and a lyric that starts out seductive and turns unexpectedly menacing. The downward trajectory picks up steam with the swinging, bucolic To the Country (We Go), a late 60s-style psychedelic pop number that again shifts from blithe to bleak: “A soft rain falls on my blouse, and now there is no doubt I see Gallows Hill in that house,” Shaw announces quietly as ebow guitar oscillates hypnotically behind her. This Balloon (Ode to Zvezdochka) intermingles images of planes and trains with an exasperated anger over lush minor-key orchestration: it’s both the most classically-oriented and Aimee Mann-esque cut here. Then all the foreshadowing explodes with the kiss-off anthem Fortunate Prince, a violent tale cached in an elegant arrangement. After the bloodshed runs its course, the narrator muses on what she might say if and when she reaches the afterlife: “There was something exciting about him when he was alive.” And then despair settles in with the understated but towering intensity of the title track.

Hell’s Bells – not the song you’re thinking of – shifts from a precise tiptoeing hip-hop beat to a lush sway, a bitter chronicle of failure with neatly intricate layers of twin vocals a la David J’s Stop This City as it winds out. But as the album comes full circle, she’s ready for the breakup guy, and the deadpan sarcasm is deadly. The album’s concluding cut is a somewhat more brisk solo piano version of the title track, which is just as good as the studio take. It’s a quiet, relentlessly intense masterpiece. The audience for this is potentially vast: any morose indie film whose music director might be contemplating something by Aimee Mann, or for that matter Feist or Neko Case, also ought to have Jodi Shaw as part of the soundtrack.