On 23rd Street Lullaby as on her 1993 debut, Rumble Doll, songwriter Patti Scialfa walks a tightrope between the optimistic, street-corner rootsy rock & roll of Dion, Laura Nyro, Doc Pomus, and Garland Jeffreys and the sober, prickly modern visions of true believers like Melissa Etheridge, Sam Phillips, and Mike Ness. This is a labyrinthine album. Scialfa's characters live in the broken space between the heady promises of youth and the struggle to maintain idealism, faith, creativity, and hope when facing disappointment and compromise in adult life. It's a love letter to the fun and excess of youth, but also a look at how original aspirations play out in life. Its songs delve deep into that mystery and emerge understanding the difference between the value in bittersweet memory and the bitter trap of nostalgia. Scialfa's musical cast includes Marc Ribot, Jane Scapantoni, Clifford Carter, Nils Lofgren, Larry Campbell, Willie Weeks, Soozie Tyrell, Lisa Lowell, John Medeski, and husband Bruce Springsteen. Co-produced with Steve Jordan, 23rd Street Lullaby wears rock's classic iconography on its sleeve -- sonically, melodically, and lyrically. Its sound is full of elegant textures and slippery beats: there are doo wop choruses and moody keyboards; graceful strings; countrified strummed acoustic and edgy electric guitars; and popping, jazzed-up cadences as well as pensive spaces and pop hooks. Scialfa's lyrics and melodies are deceptively simple and immediately accessible, but they open into swirling wells of emotion carried in the cradle of reminiscence and the heart of desire.
The title cut hits the groove running. Scialfa's protagonist offers the promise of a playful seduction with delight; there is no guilt here, only pronounced and playful want: "Come on darling...Oh my my/You want to hear my 23rd Street lullaby/Got a bottle of wine...got a bag of tricks/There's place for you under my fingertips...." Framed by piano, strings, and B-3, the skittering snare puts the guitars in the pocket. The mischievousness is countered on "You Can't Go Back," which struts itself open with the chord changes from Lou Reed's "Walk On the Walk Side." But it moves off, down into the weight of a life that seeks the ghosts of its past as a way of accepting the present and saying "yes" no matter what. In the doo wop backing vocals it touches on history, but as part of the fabric of a thoroughly modern pop song. The haunting Americana on "Stumbling to Bethlehem" (used in the TV show Joan of Arcadia) is the album's hinge; using personal inventory, it weighs the cost of guilt and rejects it in favor of the willingness to persevere in order to see what comes next. But desire, past and present, is the undercurrent on 23rd Street Lullaby. In the wounded countryish-rock of "State of Grace," the soft-shuffle of "Chelsea Avenue," and "Young in the
City," the poignant ballad that closes the set, desire becomes the link in the chain between faith and hope; it is reflected through the mirror of memory and nurtured by the passionate living of its protagonists. Its author gives listeners a slightly cocky, dreamy view of the past, and balances it with self-effacing humor, grit, sensuality, and reflection; it follows its own way. 23rd Street Lullaby is a wise, grown-up record, yet it is guided by an untamed, wily heart.