Enticing, Brooding, Pensive Cello Songs from Meaner Pencil
Take a look at art-rocker Lenna Pierce, a.k.a. Meaner Pencil busking on the Metropolitan Avenue G train platform. She’s imperturbable. A woman sits down next to her, completely oblivious, and Pierce doesn’t flinch. She keeps on singing, quiet and steady and resolute behind her blonde bangs and dollar store glasses. This is how you do it if you’re talented and not trustfunded and want to make a living in the subway in 2014.
With the elegant, sometimes spectacularly soaring voice of a chorister and eclectic chops on the cello, Pierce’s latest album, Senza Amanti is streaming at Bandcamp. The title has a double meaning Pierce obviously relates to – it’s Italian for “without lovers,” but is also the term for the tradition where a conductor’s instructions for classical music performance are given in Italian, i.e. “fermata” rather than “full stop”. Pierce is also emerging from the subway tunnel for a solo show at around 9 PM at Goodbye Blue Monday on June 27.
Most of Pierce’s songs here are sad and troubled. She uses her voice as an instrument just as much as her cello, often contrasting her nonchalantly breathtaking flights to the upper registers against murky, wounded cello atmospherics or simple, catchy riffs that she plays as live loops, more or less, or develops variations on them. When she’s at her most operatic, the lyrics tend to get subsumed by the music; the album is best appreciated as a mood piece. Ultimately, what she’s offering – especially in the subway – is solace amidst chaos. Which, when you think about it, is what music is all about, isn’t it?
The opening track, Lisa’s Knife, sets the stage: Pierce takes a simple, catchy blues lick and makes stately chamber pop out of it. She doesn’t even sing lyrics until it’s almost over. Her Name Was Nebraska has an apprehensively hypnotic, methodical pulse and some raga riffage as it goes along. The swooping Bar-fly, Turtledove is a springboard for Pierce’s spine-tingling vocal range. Several of the tracks alternate stark low-register washes with incisive pizzicato picking. Bits and pieces of lyrics percolate through the mist: “There was a time I needed help and no help came,” Pierce intones toward the end of Blue Bruise.
The song titles reflect Pierce’s cynical sense of humor. Evanly Hevangelical seems to be a reflection on somebody who’s not exactly a saint. Subterranean Sympathy for New York City is an unlikely lullaby. Hooligan House 2012 recalls a march to Union Square with both friends and “assholes.” The album’s most sparse song, Love’s Loss is also its catchiest. The rest of the album ranges from skeletal and minimalist to a long, hazy shot at an anthem. It’s a great drifty rainy-day listen.