Susan Werner,
New Non-Fiction
(self-produced, 2001)

"Stationary," the opening track to Susan Werner's latest release, New Non-Fiction, is a strong, upbeat song with radio potential. It's such a stunning opener -- what with Werner's introductory a cappella lines, a complex melody line that allows her to show off her classically trained voice and heartfelt lyrics -- that the rest of the album seems like a letdown after that strong beginning.

The second song, "Shade of Grey," works to maintain the criterion "Stationary" developed. Werner blends some light jazz with this pop/rock number, and it's her vocals that are highlighted against the jazzy keyboards and guitars. Werner's voice is up to its usual high standards. It's clear that this woman isn't "just" another singer-songwriter. She studied opera at Philadelphia's Temple University, where she earned her master's degree in music. After attending a Nanci Griffith concert in Philadelphia, she realized the music Griffith was performing was just as viable as opera, and, more importantly, it was the kind of music she wanted to perform as well.

"People who come to my shows so often tell me they appreciate the range -- the range of styles, genres and colors in my music," Werner says in her press release. While I'm sure that statement is true, I wonder if she's reaching too far on New Non-Fiction. It's really not that any of the songs are bad, but it sounds as if she's still searching for her own musical category by including so many different styles. By itself, "Yellow Rooms" is a fun song that lets Werner explore a country/bluegrass style. However, when it follows "Blue Guitar," with its Elvis-in-Hawaii riffs, it just seems too much. In turn, "Yellow House" is followed by the soulful "(It's OK to) Feel Good" and then the fast-paced country/rock of "All of the Above." "Big Car" must be fun to sing, what with its bluesy melody and bold lyrics. However, it's yet another change of style.

A cover of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'" slows down the pace. It's an interesting take on the song; Werner's voice and the strings have a tinny sound to them. According to the CD booklet, the song was recorded on a "cassette played on a teenie tiny recorder held up to a microphone and put to two-inch reel by Colin Linden, who then got the band to play along with it while I was out getting barbecue." It makes for a fun story, but I have to wonder why that particular song needed that sort of effect.

The album winds up generally in a standard singer-songwriter manner. "Nefertiti's Dream" plays with confessional lyrics and bold acoustic guitars. The closing number, "Epilogue: May I Suggest," has that "wrap-it-up" feel. It's not that these final songs are better than the others; indeed, some of the earlier songs are stronger material. There is something comfortable, however, in ending with a thoughtful song that reflects Werner's overall hopeful outlook on life.

I haven't heard any of these songs performed live. I had misgivings about Werner's previous album, Time Between Trains, until I heard Werner perform the songs in concert. They seemed different that what had been recorded, and I was resolved to give the CD another try. I still wasn't as thrilled with the CD, however, as I was with how she performed the material on stage.

The same might be said for these new songs. I hope that it's true. Generally speaking, these songs are good on their own. Collectively, though, their overall effect seems awkward, as if they and their composer are searching for just the right niche -- perhaps the niche that will rocket Werner back to a major label.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 30 March 2002

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