Back in December when I slopped together my list of the year’s best music, I made a critical oversight: I omitted Rebecca Pearcy’s Constellation. Blame it on my cynicism. Blame it on timing. Blame anything—it doesn’t matter. Unquestionably, this is the one of the best albums of 2002.
The CD arrived unannounced in early December, mailed by a publicist friend about a week after she told me she was quitting her job. As always, I expected little, assuming this was just one last crappy free CD made by a self-indulgent singer/songwriter. The promo piece accompanying it said Ms. Pearcy makes handbags. Sure, whatever… Thus the disc sat in a pile of bills and catalogs for a few days until I decided to give it a listen one afternoon while I started to prepare dinner.
The first song, the title track, blew me away. Dinner was late that night.
Still, I didn’t figure the haunting charm of this relatively obscure Pacific Northwest folk singer’s second album would last. But it did. I ripped the CD onto my iPod and it’s been in heavy rotation for two months. And like all great albums, I can’t really explain why I like it this much, other than to say it’s the right music at the right time. So much so that I called the publicist, now happily toiling away outside the music biz. We had an excited conversation about the album; she used the kinds of words that elude me in describing music, like “airy” and something that started with “proto-.” Although I think I agreed with what she said, I’m touched by Pearcy’s music for reasons less easily summarized, but actually quite simple: she sings about love.
The album opens with five lines that set the tone: “That night in the car / When you asked me / If I had a habit / Of being attracted / To dysfunctional men.” A woman after my own heart! These are cheery songs of loss and heartache, breakup songs for that time long after your heart has toughened or at least recovered. Nineteen-year-old Midwestern girls, this is not music to help you cope when your first college boyfriend sleeps with your roommate. A mature wisdom runs throughout Pearcy’s songs, her wry sense of humor and a brilliant track sequence saving even the saddest songs like “Messy” and “Seems a Shame” from becoming tearjerkers. This thankfully allows Pearcy to transcend the emotional chain jerking of sophomoric weepies like Sarah McLachlan. Granted, Pearcy’s vocal style owes something to Sarah with an “h” and other college girlfriend faves like Margo Timmins of Cowboy Junkies. There are even shades of Joni Mitchell in Pearcy’s voice. (All comparisons complimentary.)
But what sets this album apart from the other folkie females with voices as beautiful as their aspirations are high is its instrumentation and production. Sure, there’s the acoustic guitar, pedal steel and violin that we’ve come to expect in the post alt.country world, but Constellation makes brilliant use of keyboards, electric instruments, and bells (Jay Bennett, please listen to this album) to add complexity without overwhelming the folk music essence. Speaking of Bennett, think Mermaid Ave. era Wilco at their prettiest and you’ll have a good idea of the musical vibe Pearcy’s grooving on.
And she does get her groove on. Pearcy succeeds in creating catchy pop songs of staggering emotional appeal on Constellation without resorting to gimmickry or melodrama, much like the Doug Hopkins-penned tracks on the Gin Blossoms’ New Miserable Experience. Pearcy is a coffee house kind of performer, just as the Gin Blossoms were nothing but a bar band. Don’t misread this comparison: Simplicity is hard to pull off this well without tons of talent. Clever lyrics and simple songs. No pretense. A confident voice. Handbags be damned.
Buy it from Amazon.