With All Its Thorns, the latest from Laura Benitez and the Heartache, affirms the talent displayed on 2014’s Heartless Woman and 2010’s For Duty or for Love, Benitez and her band exhibiting a seasoned confidence and impressive versatility.
The album opens with “Something Better than a Broken Heart,” calling attention to the maturity of Benitez’s voice. Bob Spector’s lead guitar is tastefully supportive, Mike Anderson on bass and Steve Pearson on drums providing a buoyant rhythm. The lyrical hook is plucked from the Americana songbook (“Always thought I’d get / something better that a broken heart”), underscoring Benitez’s ability to pay tribute to her forebears while concurrently asserting her individuality, navigating “the traditionalist’s conundrum” of bringing freshness to a tried-and-true form.
“Our Remember Whens” focuses on the optimism that fuels young love, hope that the relationship will yield a lifetime of fond memories. “In Red,” on the other hand, attests to the shadowy side of relational union, featuring Benitez’s knack for intriguing narrative and evocative images—“red” symbolizing “debt,” “passion,” and “blood,” “blood” signifying both the substance of life and the color of violence. Benitez’s vocal is pristine, melodies complemented by Ian Sutton’s steel guitar. In three relatively short but sublime verses, a relationship is depicted from its inception to its end (spoiler alert: by murder, of course!).
“Whiskey Makes Me Love You” is a wry ode to booze, Benitez singing, “Whiskey makes me love the world” and “Whiskey makes me love you more,” her ebullient delivery belying the sinister realities of addiction. In “Secrets,” Benitez addresses the complexities of a double life with ironic equanimity, highlighting her ability to adopt a convincing persona. With both songs, the intentional incongruence between tone and content creates a palpable and hypnotic tension, akin to instruments playing in different keys, perhaps different tunings, but remaining harmonious, even euphonic.
“Ghost Ship” is a worthy tribute to the people who were traumatized by or died in the December 2016 fire that broke out in a warehouse in Oakland, CA. Benitez evokes outrage and compassion with compact and accessible lines: “In the morning ash is blowing / Out of the burnt shell of the building.” Her social commentary elegizes the underdogs of the world, victims of criminal negligence at the hands of powerful exploiters: “And they were all failed by the system / Your name is still among the missing.”
The closing song, “Nora Went Down the Mountain,” relates the story of a woman who exits the oppressive dynamics of her marriage (“… her husband couldn’t understand the fact / That she would go without a word of warning”), relishing her independence and apparent self-actualization – an au courant take on Dolly Parton’s “To Daddy,” recorded by Emmylou Harris in 1978 (Parton’s own version was released in 1995).
With All Its Thorns shows Benitez and company claiming their place in a competitive genre in which success is often secured by those who can best reconcile emulation and originality; i.e., “making it new,” but not too new. This has been the golden formula for Alison Krauss, Jamey Johnson, Sturgill Simpson, and Margo Price, among others. Benitez and the Heartache strike their own persuasive balance, offering songs that will engage conventionalists and hybridists alike; in the process, honing an undeniable presence that, with time, will only grow more finely tuned.