If I am an advocate of anything about music it is the importance of a singer-songwriter or even just a songwriter (not necessarily a singer), to write songs from the perspective few others explore. Just to be original.
There are tons of love songs, but how many are about falling in love with an older woman? Many confessional songs about regret over a love that was never even expressed? What am I saying? I admire songwriters who avoid cliché and standard formula writing. They look for something few express. Give me something different. Tell me a story.
Heather Lynne Horton explores vulnerability (“Murphy’s Law”), makes observations, translates narratives, tells a tale from perspectives other songwriters don’t. She sings about the disabled, protecting a daughter, falling in love against better judgment. This is compelling and challenging stuff. It takes a brave songwriter to even consider this type of direction. But didn't Leonard Cohen do it? Dylan? Even The Beatles? Definitely Joni Mitchell.
For many, songs that become favorites are not always because the listener relates to the lyrics. Sometimes people love a song and have no clue what the singer is talking about.
On first listen, many don’t realize“Luka” by Suzanne Vega is about child abuse. Few know that Toni Child’s “I’ve Got to Go Now,” is about picking up her children and getting into a car to escape an abusive relationship.
Joan Armatrading's “I Really Must Be Going,” is about being in love with a married person and realizing how wrong it is. No bitterness, just admiration for someone respected despite the awkwardness of the relationship. Powerful song.
That leads us to Heather Lynne Horton and her unorthodox…no, that’s not the right word. Her creative and diversified look at real life. Having the courage to paint pictures with words that are not easy to look away from. So, on her latest effort “Don’t Mess with Mrs. Murphy,” and assistance from her singer-songwriter husband Michael McDermott (“Last Chance Lounge” – excellent collection of songs from his 2000 album on the Koch label), Ms. Horton nails down a compelling collection of durable tales with wound to the limit instincts. These are songs for listening and absorbing.
First out of the bottle: with retro echo used to excellence is “Did You Feel That,” and it’s loaded with a beautiful 60’s girl-group energy. The Shangri-Las (Mary Weiss), Reparata & the Delrons, Lesley Gore and the like. Heather fills it with her own unique splash of melody and performance. “Your blanket of breath, La petite death, they say I’m obsessed, Did you feel that?” Oh yeah.
The song starts with pensive acoustic guitars (Michael McDermott) and lead guitar by Josh Grange. A steady standard rock beat (Jerry Rowe) is remarkable in its simplicity and power. All the magic comes from Heather’s voice however and the way she reconstructs the oldie sound into a fresh arrangement and style. Let's just say she took a tarnished genre and polished it.
The hook “Did You Feel That?” is memorable if not vague in how she whips those four words out and mumbles them like Mick Jagger would. I like this. Heather has an excellent female rock voice and the all the necessary nuances.
By track four – Heather falls back into an Annie Haslam (Renaissance) and Jane Siberry world. The melody is mysterious and surreal in “Save the Rain,” but it’s rendered beautifully and mature. The tune has power yet it’s pensive and quite a departure from the earlier tracks on the album. Not as world-music oriented as Enya – the song has a subtle streamlined approach.
“Boomerang” opens with haunting guitar notes and more of Heather’s echoed other-worldly vocals. Heather is conscious of keeping her individual songs different from each other and there’s no sameness to her presentation. On this song, the ghostly backup vocals are enchanting at best. But the layered sounds of guitars, bass, and shuffling snare moves the song along in an old-fashioned rock manner. Heather manages to dress up an old doll in fashionable clothes. She explores an area of female singing few of today’s singers are even familiar with. This one reminds me a little of the mysterious and excellent non-hit by The Shangri-Las (Mary Weiss) when they moved from Red Bird Records to Mercury in the late 1960’s and they released the incredible “Sweet Sounds of Summer.” Now that was a female vocal group way ahead of its time. Heather has found that style (probably accidentally) and she is polishing it her way, with her own technique. There are no last gasps of an old tradition here – the songs stand up and they are a delight.
Up next is an ethereal magical song and probably melodically one of the best of Heather’s new collection. “Flesh and Blood.” It's dynamic. Has a little Sarah McLachlan to it, but with urgency. Heather’s high notes are thrilling, the song’s lyrics are intense and many are not your typical lyrics. This is what sets Heather’s songs apart from the crowd. She uses words wisely and she fits them creatively. The song is held together with upright bass, nylon string guitar (Lex Price) a lead guitar, lap steel and Heather’s voice paints so many effective notes onto the musical canvas. The song is over six minutes long and there’s never a dull moment. Now, track seven is uh…. ”F U” – and we all know what that stands for.
Here, the cuss word is elevated to artistic levels. Heather’s beautiful vocal makes the world-famous swear word – appealing. Ha. I love it.
She says the word with such sincerity, delicacy and maybe because she has attached a good musical note to the word itself it never sounds truly offensive. Can that be? She has achieved what no rap or hip-hop songwriter could do. Actually, inject a “bad word” into a song and make it work as a musical statement without sounding...vulgar.
The melody and lyric structure are quite good. “I’ve had friends far sicker than you…and learned shocking tricks from the best whores I knew…motives so illegal that I could sue…you can’t have what’s not yours…F U… (fuck you). She actually says the word elegantly.
I played the track several times in a row and some passing my desk never picked up on the "nastiness" of it because it's just there but not there. Surprisingly clever. Not as in your face as Harry Nilsson's "You're Breaking My Heart," which really sticks into your face suddenly with malice and vinegar. This is a keeper. Unfortunately, it will never be played on the radio. But this is the ONE. (I'm told there is a cleaner version of this great song online). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQ1NEQzv_CQ&index=20&list=PLhr-Vus4wMKdvKgBXhKftkoBCpLLUa18O
“I Wanna Die in My Sleep,” -- definitely born from the rich musical soil of The Shangri-Las (“Leader of the Pack”) again. These songs share that strong narrative old-style rock approach and they are distance cousins. Had Amy Winehouse survived I am certain she would have tracked this song down from Heather and covered it. Amy and Heather are cut from the same cloth even though their voices are slightly different. Both women have rich vocal senses. Lyrical images are wonderful: “It was one of those sweet sticky late afternoons, back in the summer of ’83….”
This song is a jewel because Heather tells the story of young girls in high school and reminiscing exactly the way Mary Weiss (The Shangri-Las) sang of the same angst-ridden tales in the 60’s. “Love You More Than Yesterday,” “Dressed in Black,” “Leader of the Pack,” “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, (Billy Joel was on the demo), “I Can Never Go Home Anymore,” and “He Cried.”
Heather’s vocal inflection and phrasing are impeccable. She would have been an ideal lead singer for a band like The Shangri-Las back in the day. She captured the mood and embodied it into her own expression and presentation. She should be commended. Few explore this area of music today. Amy Winehouse, who admired it, touched upon it a few times.
Now for those too young to know this female group, this was a legendary 60’s group. They played with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones & James Brown (who thought The Shangri-Las were black until he met them). The subjects this group sang about were intense, melodramatic, heartbreaking tales that were very real for teenage girls: alienation, loneliness, and adolescent emotions. This was not what The Supremes and the Dixie-Cups sang about.
This is the similar world of Heather Lynne Horton in 2017 and she is quite adept. “I Wanna Die in My Sleep,” is a stirring story and it’s told with meaningful words and it’s drenched in that Shangri-La style of poignancy and sadness. “So, ten months just flew on by…and I refuse to say goodbye…”
There’s a bonus track 11 -- “You’re the One That I Want,” with male vocal – probably Michael McDermott with Heather – it’s also quite excellent. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VfBLgQTv5_Q
The collection was produced, recorded, engineered and mixed by bassist, guitarist, multi-instrumentalist Lex Price. The package also includes a beautiful 8-page lyric booklet with musician credits. Photography on the CD was by Sandro and the CD artwork designed by Keith Brogdon at Thinking Out Loud Design. All music and lyrics by Heather Lynne Horton with “Pauper Sky,” by Michael McDermott. Some additional music was provided by John Farrar. The album was recorded primarily in Nashville, TN.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review/commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as a reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.
John Apice / No Depression / November 2017