Weightless, the second Sugar Hill offering from singer/songwriter Liz Longley, offers a natural evolution in her sound. Produced by Bill Reynolds (Band of Horses, Avett Brothers), this date uses the meld of pop Americana that established her reputation and grafts on indie and rock & roll. Recorded at Fleetwood Shack in Nashville, Longley, Reynolds, and a small cast of players straddle a line between contemporary country's hooky melodicism (sans production staples like fiddles, steel guitars, and banjos), 21st century indie rock, and the country-pop/rock that songwriters like Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, and Carlene Carter embraced in the late '70s and early '80s.
Longley's trademark as a lyricist is in writing unflinching narratives, but these songs, whose topics include the attainment of freedom at any cost, loss, vulnerability, and the acceptance of change no matter how difficult, are particularly steely. Assembled they form a poetic -- and kinetic -- meditation on relationships and personal transformation. The pulsing new wave keys in "Swing" frame an intimate vocal before electric guitars and tom-toms thunder in from the margins. Longley's grainy falsetto declares: "Can't settle me down/Or make me stand still/Can't hold me back, nobody ever will...." The title track underscores that theme as her protagonist cuts free from a destructive relationship. A strummed acoustic guitar hovers about under her initially hesitant vocal, but in the chorus, punchy electric six-string guitars and crashing cymbals shore up the singer's conviction; the tune gathers steam and becomes an anthem. "Say Anything You Want" balances a rough and tumble Neil Young & Crazy Horse-style attack with an infectious melodic hook, it's among the best things here. Longley finally places "Rescue My Heart" -- an aching ballad used in both ABC's Switched at Birth and MTV's Scream: The TV Series -- on an album. The resigned and determined lyrics in "Never Really Mine" are complemented by a cinematic arrangement that blurs the lines between Americana, vintage rock, and indie pop. The slow rocking "Electricity," adorned in reverb, drum loops, acoustic piano, and layered backing vocals in choral style, is glorious indie pop. "Oxygen" seamlessly melds dreamy pop atmospherics and indie rock into a dramatic close. Its lyric bets on love as the force of redemption. Longley's been heading toward Weightless for a while, yet fine as it is, it still sounds like she's on the road to something bigger, wider. That's a not a criticism: Musical evolution is part and parcel of what makes pop music compelling. To hear this songwriter's growing confidence as she moves from strength to strength is a privilege.