Heidi Spencer & The Rare Birds Under Streetlight Glow Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

Spencer’s sweet, barbed voice tells of secret liaisons and drunken encounters.

Daniel Ross 2011

Variously a travelling filmmaker and singer-songwriter, Milwaukee's Heidi Spencer (performing with her group The Rare Birds) has a remarkably singular musical vision for someone who has previously straddled mediums. Her sound on Under Streetlight Glow is, perhaps unsurprisingly given the title, city-dwelling, briskly jazzy and folky by turns, and governed by her sweet, barbed voice. Of course, when you're a singer-songwriter, having an interesting voice isn't quite enough to guarantee great results, and Spencer's songs are only occasionally the match of her emotive burr.

Opener Alibi is, luckily, one such occasion. Diminutive and unassuming in delivery, it's rather a cheeky story of a secret liaison set against a stop-start rhythm section that forces you to listen closely to each snippet of decorative information. Musically, it is these jazzy shuffles that Spencer excels at most of all; the following title-track recalling the smokiness of Cat Power's The Greatest LP among others. Particularly, the interaction between Spencer's whistling and the aping guitar line is completely irresistible, perfect for rainy cities in the early evening.

Unfortunately the finer songs are swept out of the way early on in Under Streetlight Glow's duration, and what remains is a rather underwhelming set of stock compositions. For example, on Go to France (complete with charmingly Parisian accordion) when Spencer assures the drunk protagonist "you are not alone tonight with your empty glass", there's something of an expressive, personal epiphany that's wonderful to hear, but that's about the last we hear of it. In the hands of, say, Nina Nastasia, these songs might be imbued with more gravitas, more life and emotional grit, but as they stand they are merely acceptable because they are underwritten and not as elaborate as they should be.

As the record winds up, the slow-burning hum of While It's Shining bleeds into its surrounding tracks nearly unnoticeably, and the following strums of Carry Me Softly are just too sickly for the words to stand any chance. This is a shame, because when the music itself matches Spencer's words and voice, they become worthy, interesting and affecting. Spencer should be vaulting over these songs in an attempt to make them connect more directly, but she seems content for them to be merely pretty for the time being.

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