Back at Disc 953 I provided a list of best albums of 2016 but I’m not linking to it, and don’t look it up – it’s wrong. I made that list too soon, and while there are a lot of great records on it since then I’ve found a lot more. This next album is one of them.
Disc 1081 is…Honest Life
Artist: Courtney Marie Andrews
Year of Release: 2016
What’s up with the Cover? The return of the Giant Head cover. The Giant Head cover was a lot more popular back in the seventies, but Courtney Marie Andrews is kind of a throwback to that era, so it makes sense. Also as Giant Heads go, I find hers pleasant to look at.
How I Came To Know It: I read a review of the album and decided to check out a couple of tracks. I liked what I heard.
How It Stacks Up: I only have one Courtney Marie Andrews album, but I’m on the prowl for the album that preceded this one, 2013’s “On My Page”. For now, I can’t make a stack out of one album.
Ratings: 5 stars
I spent an hour last night standing with twenty other people waiting for a bus that never came. This should have annoyed me, but when you have Courtney Marie Andrews’ “Honest Life” keeping you company it just feels like part of the journey. My heart swelled and soared with beauty while all around me people fretted, peered down the road and thumbed away furiously at their smart phones.
“Honest Life” is an apt name for this record, which is raw and emotionally evocative. I heard in an interview that Andrews got a lot of her ideas for this record talking to people while working in an Eastern Washington State pub. Whether she is taking on their stories or telling her own – and it is often hard to tell – she applies an unflinching honesty to the subject. There is a lot of heartache on an “Honest Life” and Andrews dives deep as she explores it.
The music is folk-tinged country, played straight up, no chaser. The songs don’t call for a lot of technical wizardry from the band and the production is sparse and keeps everything even in the mix, letting the songwriting and Andrews’ vocals draw you in. Sometimes this can be a bigger challenge to a band than complex arrangements, because it exposes any falseness or lack of feeling. Fortunately, everyone on “Honest Life” fully commits, throwing their hearts into the songs with the same courage as Andrews.
Andrews was only 25 when she made this album, but she has an old soul. Her tone is rich with a very subtle quaver in the upper register. It feels timeless, and the way she makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck reminded me of Emmylou Harris. Like Harris, Andrews can sing in an exposed and delicate way that makes you catch your breath. She has a frayed innocence and pathos that evokes the first time you felt lovelorn, or lost or uncertain, but with a core of conviction that reminds you how you pulled yourself together and carried on.
The first songs that catch your attention are the road-weary mid tempo numbers. Andrews opens the album with “Rookie Dreaming” and when she lands the opening line “I was singin’ with the choir on the train” you wish with all your heart you could’ve been on that train. Listening to her, you kind of are. On “Put the Fire Out” when she sings the chorus:
“I am ready to put the fire out
There’s a place for everything
And I think I know mine now.”
The melody line walks down with a conviction that matches her commitment. There’s some uncertainty in that “I think” section, but the music tells you that she’s going to be OK. These songs are a balm for anyone feeling a little uncertain about life. They’re so real and true that they go beyond telling Andrews’ story, or even the story of her bar patrons, they tell your story too.
There is a plainness in Andrews writing that speaks very directly, and lets the metaphors she chooses stand out stark and clear. “Irene” tells the story of a woman with bad luck in men, or as Andrews puts it:
“You are a magnet, Irene
Sometimes good people draw troublesome things.”
Or she’ll just go for the plain truth, no need for literary terms. Such as on “Let the Good One Go”:
“They say a goodbye is a goodbye
That my heart won’t ache
All it will take is time
But I’d like to think pain ain’t that black and white”
These lines are a good encapsulation of this record; forthright and direct but not pretending to have all the answers. Life isn’t about simple solutions or defined end points, it’s a journey that flows like a river until one day, it doesn’t. While it flows it’s nice to have someone like Courtney Marie Andrews helping put words to those swells in your heart that are so hard to translate.
On the title track, Andrews sings:
“All I’ve ever wanted was an honest life
To be the person that I really am inside.”
Some people take a lifetime and never achieve this, but at the tender age of 25, Andrews has delivered a record that does so on every song.
Empty inspirationals are like candy – immediately gratifying, but ultimately leaving you empty and wanting more. “Honest Life” is food for the soul, filling you with resolve and leaving you a better and wiser person than before you heard it.
Best tracks: All tracks