Cindy Lee Berryhill

Living Room 16

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Cindy Lee Berryhill, a San Diego contemporary of Jewel's in the same way that the Beatles were contemporaries of Freddie & the Dreamers, has a great voice, a sometimes caustic but always compassionate worldview, immense songwriting ability, and genuine wit, proven by the intimate live album Living Room 16, recorded near San Francisco during Berryhill's 1998 tour of fans' homes. Berryhill's debut, 1987's Who's Gonna Save the World?, was an Iran-Contra-era combination of minimalist folk-style arrangements; intelligent, wry lyrics; and tantalizingly catchy melodies. On Living Room 16, this album's "She Had Everything" and instant classic "Damn I Wish I Was a Man" (here preceded by a lengthy and hilarious explanation of how she wrote the song after one too many people mistook her for the receptionist at the recording studio she managed) sound as startlingly fresh as they had over a decade before. Living Room 16 skips 1989's flawed Naked Movie Star entirely, heading straight into material from her much more lush and pop-oriented mid-'90s albums Garage Orchestra and Straight Outta Marysville. Stripped down to just her voice, guitar, and keyboard, with cellist Renata Bratt providing economical support, performances like "Diane" (a touching tribute to a transvestite friend), the ultra-catchy "Gary Handeman," and the tongue-in-cheek multi-part epic "UFO Suite" sound just great, a tribute to how much Berryhill's melodic skills have grown since her debut. Conversely, the four new songs (the stark, autobiographical "Family Tree"; the rambling ballad "Witness"; "Look at That Grin"; and the gentle "This Way Up") bode well for her next full-band album. Against this sparse backdrop, Berryhill sings with unaffected grace and easy humor. When she forgets the verse halfway through "Gary Handeman," she asks if anyone remembers how the song goes with only the mildest trace of embarrassment. The intimacy of the set-up and the tiny crowd leads Berryhill to launch into several tangent-strewn monologues about chewing gum, the Brady Bunch, and Merle Haggard between songs, sounding less like a performer and her audience than an exceptionally talented and interestingly quirky songwriter playing her new songs for a small collection of friends.

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