Isabel & The Uncommons – Hearts and Arrows
Sometimes after all the music that is sifted through, with all its technology, layered sound, multi-tracks and over production there comes a collection closer to traditional with a clean, modern and refreshing sound. Here there is a hint of Brenda Lee, a suggestion of Alison Krauss and a more simple time when vocalists such as Skeeter Davis (“End of the World”), Diane Renay (“Navy Blue”), Sandy Posey (“Single Girl,” “I Take It Back”) and Jody Miller (“Silver Threads and Golden Needles”) ruled the charts as stand alone singles.
Isabel & the Uncommons may now own this simple thread of melodic folk-roots-country today.
It’s a simple recipe – nothing too spicy, nothing that will require deep analyzing. This is a new line of soul food, a variety on a plate as traditional as corn and peas in butter with some spinach and string beans on the side. It’s organic, vegetarian and pure.
The album “Hearts and Arrows” has rich variety. The first track blew into my ears the way a summer breeze would.
“Something Sacred” opens with a solemn piano and then Isabel’s rich sincere voice provokes the listener with its first potent words: “Something scared has been lost, something tender has its cost….” And the scenario is set. Is this a religious song? Not as much as it’s a poignant and reflective hymn the way Leonard Cohen writes. No heavy lesson, no fire and brimstone – just a direct arrow into the heart with its memorable melody.
“I Don’t Want To Know,” has a change in its tone – a little dirtier, bluesy, with that “Lion Sleeps Tonight” type of percussion driving it along. This has some creamy guitar spread throughout the song and Isabel slinks through the words like a small snake in the under brush. Suggestive at times and potent. Not stopping with this tune, Isabel segues into “A Man That Can Drive,” with Julie Lawson ghosting Isabel’s vocals in a cool layered style similar to the late Dory Previn.
In the old days tracks like these were produced with a nod towards each being a single 45 rpm material – released as stand alone hits. It’s ingenious how each song has that quality – which is not easy. Many artists produce albums worth of material and not one song is aimed at the market with that type of investment and value in a single song.
By the time I was listening to track 7 – “New Love,” I was convinced I was listening to something that is essentially perfect juke box tunes, perfect radio-friendly hits with no fat or gristle on their bones. All meat. But, I was talking vegetables before right? Ah, but that’s the talent of Isabel and her band. Her tunes are like diner menus — one column is organic, one is meat, one is side orders. Each song has its different tone, approach and presentation. “New Love,” is bare bones but listening through headphones its music and lyric become rich the way a milk shake is as it comes up through the straw with little effort and is simply delicious and sweet.
“Cover-Up Man,” has a little vocal processing and a mysterious little whine in it like a Theremin or a saw. The melody is thick and when Isabel starts to sing more seriously with the lines “Well little sister it’s your turn, the cover-up man will make you burn, he’ll play his game so self-assured, it takes a while till you see how disturbed …..”
This is the muscle song with all the trimmings of a hit song – “never want to look at the graves that you dig….” Heavy stuff with equally inspiring music. Guitars are wrenching like when you twist a wet washrag to get all the water out. Every drop. This song has that angst and it’s wonderful.
A real country charmer with fiddle and playful lyrics comes in the tight package of “Oh Lord, Don’t Leave Me Alone.” Is it corny? No, but it teeters on the brink playfully – this could have been performed on “Hee Haw” – if the singer had that twangy wink-of-the-eye sly style of performing. Dolly Parton? Yeah. Jessi Colter? Definitely. Reba McIntyre – perfect. This tune makes ears perk up – the happiness in the beat and melody is infectious. Any of those 1960’s country pop singers could have had a major hit with this. Isabel? Absolutely. She nails it and she owns the hammer.
Isabel is Isabel Fryszberg – on vocals and acoustic guitar and her Uncommons include Steve Briggs (Acoustic and electric guitars), Don Kerr (drums and other miscellaneous instruments), Dennis Pendrith (Acoustic bass), Rosayln Dennet (Banjo, fiddle and harmonies). There are five special guests: Saw (I thought so on that song “Cover-Up Man” by Sam Ferrara), Michael Holt plays piano, Julie Lawson is harmony, as well as, Julian Taylor. John Switzer is electric bass on “Nothing Lasts But Love.”
Don Kerr produced and engineered the album.
“New Moon,” is more jazz oriented. You would think that country-roots artists would not have the voice for such an undertaking. But, it’s smooth and very Billie Holiday-like. A nice Les Paul, Tommy Mottola type guitar signature makes for real easy listening that is a pleasure.
“City Girl,” is a departure from the previous tunes with banjo plucking slow colors that run together like little embers of notes. Isabel’s vocals are at their best here – deep, authoritative, country with out the whiskey but clearly a warm brandy soaked cherry feel. The lyrics are perfect too and the musicians are all on the same page. If Leonard Cohen wrote a song with Emmylou Harris this would be that song. “An urban girl of shattered dreams could not resist, the call of the west….with suitcase and ticket she enters a world, feeling like some kind of guest….”
All faithful to an old tradition while definitely walking the other side of the street.
That’s Isabel and the Uncommons. It’s not so much pushing the envelope as tossing confetti into the sky. If you have an appetite for some old music but you want that “I just heard it for the first time” feel you had when you were younger – this is the album. Every tune is radio ready, with an undercurrent of sophistication and back porch easiness.
The CD art is one of the best efforts I have seen in awhile. A tri-panel all color die-cut piece with lyric book, credits, color photography with a public domain silver-nitrate type-cupid with arrow. Designed by Karyn Ellis. Isabel looks country but not that commercial Nashville look. She’s got a very original look, exuding the confidence of an artist who has created a style and a look that is splendid for the kind of music she and her band represents.
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With the implosion of folk act Sisters of Sheynville, it was only a matter of time until sparkplug Isabel Fryszberg made her solo recording debut. Hearts and Arrows is allegedly autobiographical, a musically diverse collection of musings on love found, love that’s become expired, broken or lost, love that should have been. The canny Isabel has a solid band at her back, The Uncommons are Don Kerr (drums, percussion, piano), Steve Briggs (electric, acoustic guitars), Dennis Pendrith (acoustic bass) and Rosalyn Dennett (banjo, fiddle) and some extra special guests. Of which Sam Ferrara on the acoustic saw (yes!) is the most exotic in a sound which overall can reference Latin music, classic C&W, soul, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley, sometimes all in the one song. A mixed blessing to be sure but if you came for the voice and the heartbreak, Isabel delivers the goods with an uncommon authenticity.
Hearts and Arrows • Isabel & The Uncommons
A founding member of acclaimed klezmer/swing combo Sisters of Sheynville, Isabel Fryszberg now makes her solo debut under the moniker of Isabel and the Uncommons. Her new album, Hearts and Arrows, is uncommonly good, and it merges country, folk, jazz and pop styles in carefree yet always convincing fashion. Album producer Don Kerr (Rheostatics, Ron Sexsmith) recruits such first-rate players as Steve Briggs, Dennis Pendrith and Rosalyn Dennet as the Uncommons, with such guests as Julian Taylor and John Switzer. Isabel is a strong songwriter, with material ranging from the double-entendres of “A Man That Can Drive” to the retro jazz of “New Moon” and the haunting “Something Sacred”. She sure hits the target here. The album was launched at Hugh’s Room in Toronto this week.
Isabel Fryszberg plays her Heart-strings out
New album, rife with heartache, to debut at November party
There’s a small shoe rack tucked beside the apartment door that’s home to singer-songwriter Isabel Fryszberg’s footwear.
Stylish cowboy boots from a trip a to Texas sit beside the flowery pair of rubber boots that were used in the cleanup of her flooded Creative Works Studio, where she works as an occupational therapist.
The diverse collection of soles is exemplary of the variety of musical influences on Fryszberg’s new album Hearts and Arrows, with her band the Uncommons. The shoes may be for the feet, but her music, a blend of Carole King, the Band, Lucinda Williams and June Carter, is for the heart.
“The album has songs from different times in my life, and from different relationships, but it seems to bring out different music and lyrics,” the Bathurst and Dupont area resident says, taking a moment to sip tea from a mug. “They’re not all necessarily sad, because I also play all kinds of different music and that seems to influence me.”
Hearts and Arrows is Fryszberg’s first solo project. She was a co-founder of the Sisters of Sheynville, a Klezmer-swing sextet that toured nationally and in the U.S. from 2005 to 2011.
The breakup of that band led her to focus on a solo career, which creatively sped up when a personal relationship also broke up in September 2012.
“I don’t want to go into it because it’s personal, but it was a betrayal, and it really triggered me,” she admits.
Fryszberg has been writing music for the past 15 years, mostly during the “intense moments” in her life, and she considers the loss of that long-distance relationship to be one of those catalysts.
The music has always been inside her, she admits, but it wasn’t until she took guitar lessons in 2007 with Steve Briggs that she honed some of her older material. Traditionally, Fryszberg has been a fiddle player.
That was the start of her new band, the Uncommons, which includes Briggs on guitar, Don Kerr on percussion and piano, Dennis Pendrith on bass and Rosalyn Dennett on fiddle.
“I feel so blessed,” she remarks. “I love this band. It’s my dream band.”
Briggs and company helped her rearrange some of her older songs, and worked with her to hash out new pieces like “Something Sacred” and “Nothing Lasts”.
“You have to care about something enough — you have to love it enough — to write about it and come from your experience,” she says, with a deep yearning revealing itself.”
She likens the position of a songwriter to a mirror: “reflecting difficult things in a song … telling truths that you wouldn’t be able to tell that person directly.”
“It has to come from a real place because that’s where the warmth is,” she says. “That’s where the tenderness comes, that’s where the pain is.”
Isabel Fryszberg and the Uncommons are celebrating the launch of Hearts and Arrows, Nov. 12 at Hugh’s Room on Dundas Street West.
And the music should be listened to with heavy hearts — and heavy toe-tapping.