Nobody sings a moody grey-sky melody with as much moving, wounded poignancy as Amanda Thorpe. Although she’s best known as a purveyor of uneasy, rustic Britfolk-influenced rock and chamber pop – she’s the closest thing to Linda Thompson this generation has produced – Thorpe has also been singing jazz since the 90s. And she’s just as hauntingly adept at it, shifting meticulously and sometimes wrenchingly from one emotion to another in a pensive alto. She’ll caress the lyrics on a verse and then hit a wailing, anguished peak on a chorus. But where she works her magic best is in between those extremes.
Thorpe’s new album Bewitching Me: The Lyrics of Yip Harburg was springboarded by a chance introduction to Ben Harburg, grandson of the ubiquitous swing era lyricist. Thorpe reinvents a bunch of old chestnuts as well as several rarities from throughout Harburg’s career, backed by a tight band recorded mostly live in the studio. Sexmob‘s Tony Scherr plays tersely eclectic guitar, ranging from wee-hours, tremolo-tuned saloon jazz to vintage soul to the downtown grit he’s best known for. Rob Jost plays bass with an edgily incisive, woody tone; Robert di Pietro on drums with his typical, minutely focused nuance; plus Matt Trowbridge on keyboards, Serena Jost on cello and Ray Sapirstein on trumpet. Joe McGinty guests memorably on organ on a shatteringly wounded, nocturnal, oldschool soul-infused take of I’m Yours. Scherr switches to bass on a wryly jaunty, Anita O’Day-style take of Buds Won’t Bud alongside guests Michael Fagan on guitar and Nancy Polstein (Thorpe’s bandmate in the late, great Wirebirds) on drums. And Ben Harburg duets with Thorpe on a droll, tonguetwisting bonus track, I Like the Likes of You, over a bouncy pop backdrop.
Her stab at turning Over the Rainbow into a janglerock anthem, Scherr channeling Bill Frisell, is about as good as anything anyone’s been able to do with it. But her take of the other standard Harburg’s best known for, Brother Can You Spare a Dime, is a quiet knockout, rising out of a creepy, ambient intro with a thinly restrained anger, bringing it into the post-Bush era with a muted vengeance and vivid sense of abandonment. With its haunting, subdued anguish, Thorpe’s noir tropicalia version of Willow in the Wind is even better, fueled by di Pietro’s ominous tom-toms and misterioso cymbal work. Thorpe and the band work their way into It’s Only a Paper Moon as subdued Lynchian noir, then wind it up with an unexpected snarl fueled by Scherr’s bristling chords. And her misty, lushly waltzing, Adrift on a Star raises the doomed deep-sky intensity to a hushed peak.
Jost’s stark cello mingles with Scherr’s sparkly guitar as Paris Is a Lonely Town unwinds into Beatlesque psychedelia. Likewise, the jazziest tune here, April in Paris gives Thorpe plenty of room to remind how much a notoriously romantic city can amplify absence and regret. Old Devil Moon gets a lingering Nashville gothic treatment that grows more sultry the deeper Thorpe goes into the song: the old devil’s definitely up to no good here. Thorpe reinvents I’m Yours as slow swaying, jangly, organ-fueled oldschool soul and follows it with the album’s most sensual number, Last Night When We Were Young, Thorpe airing out her upper register with a lushly breathy, spine-tingling presence.
There are also a couple of considerably more lighthearted songs here. Thorpe has devilishly deadpan fun with all the tricky rhymes and innuendo in When I’m Not Near the Man I Love over the band’s tiptoeing red-neon ambience. And she gives Then I’ll Be Tired of You a swinging vintage soul-infused interpretation. The album’s liner notes compare the chemistry between Thorpe and Scherr to Julie London with Barney Kessel, or Mary Ford with Les Paul, and while this rocks harder than either of those duos ever did, the comparison holds true. As noir music and torch songs go, it doesn’t get any better than this. It this album the best of 2014 so far? It’s one of them.