Turmoil, particularly of the romantic sort, often creates great art. That's especially true in music, where breakups have produced classics such as Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours. It has also proved a spark for Americana singer/songwriter/standup bassist Amy LaVere. Dark topics of love gone awry have always been part of her repertoire, but on her third and most introspective album, the dissolution of a long personal relationship with drummer Paul Taylor (who contributes to every track even though the album was recorded after their split), and the death of her mentor/producer Jim Dickinson, give her music a dusky, often unsettling edge that marks this as LaVere's most compelling and challenging set yet. On atmospheric, even spooky songs such as "Cry My Eyes Out," with its shimmering feedback, reverbed guitar, and oozingly slow beat, there's a sense of desperation that goes far deeper than the lyrics or oblique melody. Multi-instrumentalist Paul Steff's vibraphone and treated keyboards are integral components to many of the tracks, including that one, infusing an oblique, murky approach often cloaked in shadows. The somewhat disconcerting cover photo of a raccoon mask painted on LaVere's face should make it clear that this time out, things are a little, well, stranger, than on her previous releases. Brooding musings such as the opening "Damn Love Song," with its militaristic beat, underlying harmonium, layered instrumentation, and LaVere's thumping acoustic bass is a clear break from her generally lighter, more folk/country music past. Even upbeat tunes like the funky "A Great Divide," with its popping bass riff and surprise jazzy sax solo features lyrics that describe the disconnect between her and her lover with a title that speaks to both the physical and psychological distance. Although the majority of the set is original, any Americana artist who covers both Jimbo Mathus' lovely "Lucky Boy" and Captain Beefheart's typically twisted "Candle Mambo" (perhaps the only recorded interpretation of this song) is clearly pushing the boundaries of the genre in all sorts of interesting, non-linear directions. The dichotomy of her breath, her girlish voice, and the music's slightly experimental bent makes for a riveting experience. It's an indication that LaVere is developing her talents and setting her sights on far wider vistas than her other two releases, as impressive as they were, indicated. In that respect, Stranger Me is not only a logical title but a demanding and surprisingly successful experiment that challenges both LaVere and the listener, pushing her into edgy, clearly non-commercial areas. It might have taken some tough changes and choices to get here, but at least artistically, those difficult times have paid off handsomely.
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AllMusic Review by Hal Horowitz