Disarmingly Down to Earth, Catchy Original Acoustic Americana from Joanna Sternberg

by delarue

Joanna Sternberg‘s expression on the cover of her new solo acoustic album Lullaby to Myself – streaming at Bandcamp – isn’t quite a scowl. But whatever she’s thinking about, she’s dead serious. Which could be a bit of a red herring since her lyrics have a deadpan humor that’s often just plain LMAO funny. Her vocals have the well-rounded fullness of a choirgirl (was she one in previous incarnation? Good possibility). Although guitar is not her main axe – she’s a conservatory-trained bassist – she plays her six-stringer confidently, knows her way around a catchy tune and draws on centuries of Americana without sounding cliched. Linda Draper is a good comparison, but where Draper fingerpicks, Sternberg strums. She’s playing the small room at the Rockwood tomorrow night, Feb 10 at 7 PM. In a vexing if probably unintentional stroke of booking, lyrical rock cult hero Ward White is playing next door at the big room at the same time. Tough choice, huh! If that’s too much of a dilemma, she’s at the Knitting Factory at 9 on Feb 18.

The first track on the new album is A Country Dance, a liltingly evocative nocturnal tale. “Follow me and my bottle of wine and we’ll dance near the stars,” Sternberg entreats, ” I’ll tell you my various schemes.” He Dreams is a sad, stripped-down take on the kind of honkytonk waltz Patsy Cline would do, set to a Mr. Bojangles-y tune. Likewise, Sternberg’s blithe vocals mask the wry sarcasm of the front porch folk number The Love I Give.

It Happens to Be a Boy looks at the same equation with a lot more optimism and good cheer. I Will Be With You has a misty, bittersweetly nocturnal vintage C&W angst – it’s sort of a mashup of the Davis Sisters and Roy Orbison, a feel that recurs toward the end of the album in a brooding breakup waltz simply titled The Song. Although Sternberg is clearly addressing herself on the charmingly antique title track, it’s a lullaby for pretty much anybody, even a toddler. Then she picks up the pace with the most bustling number here, I’ve Got Me, a wry look at the perils of self-absorption: “Between self-hatred and self-awareness is a very fine line…why is it so hard to be kind and gentle to myself?” she muses.

Without You brings to mind Bessie Smith’s After You’ve Gone; like a lot of the songs here, it benefits from some absolutely marvelous natural reverb in the space where it was recorded. The final track, I’ll Make You Mine is hardly as cheerful as the title suggests, one of many places on this album where the subtext runs deep. These songs may be just guitar and vocals, but Sternberg packs a lot into them.