Cathy Miller,
Living for the Stars
(Sealed with a Kiss Records, 1998)

I seem to be reviewing more genre-crossing albums lately, and Cathy Miller's Living for the Stars is no exception. The combination of folk and swing seems such a natural mix that it's impressive more musicians haven't expressly tried it. Still, I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the album -- would it be acoustic big band (whatever that might be) or would it be more like an album of torch songs without the blaring horn back up? It is, in many ways, a combination of those things with its own unique flavor thrown in.

The first track, "Take a Break from Love," introduces the tone of the album immediately, moving from an simple beginning into a rhythm that is unmistakable swing. The clarity of acoustic music and individual instruments is combined with the tempo, humor and romanticism of swing. Miller's sweet, low alto is both appropriate to the style and has a great strength behind it that is reminiscent of all of those torch singers from the Big Band era.

"Goodnight, Irene" hardly needs an introduction from me. Miller's voice is perfectly melancholy and tender, and the accompanying guitar and accordion make for a mellow while almost cheerful version of a classic.

"Cumberland" is the one song on the album which addresses a serious issue rather than relationships or whimsical slices of observation. Filled with a lovely, minor violin haunting the backdrop of the song, it showcases the folk side of the album. The strings and guitar seem to flow almost unaware of each other, but meld well to make a distinct melancholy. The story of Depression-era Chinese immigrants and the necessity of remembering the past, the good times and perhaps especially the mistakes, suits Miller's pen and singing well. She pulls the right amount of strength and guilt out of the notes to make a powerful song.

Wondering when that whimsy will show up? Well, here it is, with a suitable tuba intro. "God Bless the Backhoe" is not something you usually hear, and yet it is presented as a neglected but necessary recoginition of an invaluable invention. The noodling clarinet is wonderful. It's not often you come across a comedic ballad about burial and grave-digging, and even more impressive, the song is not disrespectful, but clever and quite lovely.

"Falling for Me" is another ballad, this one more rollicking and definitely swing, addressing love with a wry smile as so often works best. The lyrics tell of the work it takes to remember well the good times, and how unexpected love can sometimes be.

"Whirlpool of Love" quickly became a favorite of mine, with its infectious beat and shamelessly cheerful lyrics. The music feels more folk, or even country, than the purported swing, and there is an amusing (and impressively not annoying) "wa-ooos" in the background. The cleverly whimsical lyrics remind me a little of Dar Williams' more snide moments of songwriting.

"My Funny Valentine" is another song that needs no real introduction, and the sweet longing Miller lends to the already melancholy lyrics make it quite a version. The snide bitterness of the song is as good a fit as the quips of the earlier, wackier songs -- it's always refreshing to hear a singer who can shift well from angry to tender emotions and back again.

"Say it Out Loud" is another yearning love song, but more optimistic than the last. The lyrics shine yet again, begging for an affirmation of a love which is already known but not yet spoken. In an interesting twist, the blame is laid on both sides rather than on the subject of the song. Miller's strong vocals manage to take the torch song aspect of her songs to a different level of power than the older, more passive stand-bys.

"Swing Geezers" is another more humorous ditty, celebrating growing older with a fabulous stream of images of living live to the fullest ... with an early bedtime. The title certainly gives you a feel of the song, and the cheerful wit and energetic music keep the song lively, even if the subjects aren't supposed to be. There's even a little chorus in from the band, recalling big band days of old, and the zinging rhythm suits the glee of the song very well.

"Star Light" is more the true torch ballad perhaps than any of the others on the album. It takes the tradition of wishing on a star and creates an affecting song of loneliness from that simple rhyme of childhood. The elegant cello adds to the gentle swing of the guitar to make a litling melody which is both spare and full of the evening's feeling of possibilities.

The title track, "Living for that Stars," again showcases Miller's lyrics and sense of melody. The verse insight works seamlessly with the music to create a palpable emotional pull, and as a love song, it does indeed send a pang or two through a tender heart. The refrain of "living for the stars to fill the sky again" echoes the double-edged sword of pain and relief than release can bring.

"A million miles away" is the most traditional folk song on the album, featuring an a capella delivery, similar to versions of "200 More Miles" or "Mining for Gold." The song is, perhaps more than any other on the album, dependant on her voice, and she doesn't stumble. She has the kind of voice that seems to gain strength over the course of the song, which suits her choices of song, and makes the listener understand why the folk is just as strong in her recordings as her swing.

"Now There is No Rain" is a fine finish for the album, circling the issues of companionship, the comfort friends and lovers give each other, and shelter of all kinds.

The entire album makes for a welcome trip into a singer-songwriter's mind with all of the keen sense of laughter and pain that one expects from a good storyteller. It is also a rare album which manages to sample from all kinds of emotions and still keep a backbone to bind all of the songs together into a whole. The music is what keeps Cathy Miller's sound uniquely her own, and I can only anticipate her next effort.

[ by Robin Brenner ]