Album Review: Indigo Girls – Poseidon and the Bitter Bug

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The music industry’s a thankless machine if you’re not an artist who can be marketed to teenagers and the 18-25 crowd. This is common knowledge that the public seems OK perpetuating. But every once in a while you catch a glimpse of talented artists somewhere on a major label’s roster and wonder why they’re not bigger.

Such is the case with Indigo Girls. The duo, composed of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, has the songwriting chops of classic troubadours and harmonies that Fleet Foxes would envy. Yet, 25 years into their career, Ray and Saliers are relegated to something of a clichéd joke by most non-fans despite being widely respected among critics and fellow artists. Two lesbians-in their 40s no less-from Georgia…not exactly edgy for indie world and not nearly mainstream enough for the rest of the listening public.

After releasing 10 albums on major labels and not getting much publicity despite some minor hits, Saliers and Ray have gone independent route with the release of Poseidon and the Bitter Bug. The two musicians are known for writing two distinctly different songs: Saliers commands the slower tracks and the campfire sing-alongs; Ray delves into harder rock and politics. Most fans have a favorite-this writer favors Ray’s harder work -so to appease fans, the first disk consists of full-band arrangements and the second disk is acoustic renditions of the same songs. The product is more interesting than you might expect, but for surprising reasons.

Aside from a handful of tracks, the Indigo Girls’ catalogue consists of midtempo tracks that push lyrics and guitar playing to the forefront and only occasionally rely on drumming or additional guitars to enhance the music. Poseidon is no different. The first disk is a quiet affair that calls to mind the duo’s earliest, intimate works. The small town narrative of “Ghost of the Gang” recalls their Georgian roots with, “I’m sitting here in the dark, afraid to make a stupid call / wishing I could bum a light from the ghost of the gang tonight.” Ray’s voice, which has matured over the last few albums, is controlled and doesn’t veer into the screechy territory that often threatened to overshadow the electric guitars in past work.

Yet, as good as Ray is, this album belongs to Saliers. Known for writing some of the duo’s most famous tunes (the ubiquitous “Closer to Fine”), Saliers had fallen into a rut that was overshadowed by Ray’s willingness to try new styles. Here, she’s the stronger songwriter. “I’ll Change” has the DIY acoustic country of Jenny Lewis’ Rabbit Fur Coat. Listen to the acoustic version where every guitar strum is heard and you’ll get the sense that some songs should’ve stayed out of a full band’s hands. Saliers sings, “Master loves his serves who blind heeds him / a husband the obedient wife / the snake will always bite the hand that feeds him / even if you love him / even if you save his life”, while Ray offers restrained harmonies. The intimacy is lost on the first disk.

What’s most interesting, and to some degree upsetting, is that the acoustic versions almost always trump the band versions. On the one hand, this is a testament to both artists’ voices and songwriting. On the other hand, it’s a signal that they’ve wasted an opportunity with the fuller arrangements. The band can and does know how to utilize additional musicians, as their lives shows (and past tracks “Shed Your Skin” and “Go”) attest. Here, they too often sound like adult contemporary music your grandparents would be OK bobbing along to in the car. Listen to the acoustic “Sugar Tongue” and revel in the warm guitar and longing vocals. Then listen to the full-band version and wonder when the band started covering Norah Jones.

In the acoustic track “Salty South”, you hear the banjo and harmonica tipping their hats to the Deep South, while Ray and Saliers sing a bittersweet love letter to a region with a storied past. Incidentally, this may be Poseidon‘s most political song, which might be not that direct, but coming from the mouths of two women who have been political activities while simultaneously professing their affinity for their homeland, the track is a more powerful statement than the lyric sheet lets on.

Still, some songs don’t belong on either disk, such as “Driver’s Education”, a tune that previously appeared on Ray’s 2005 solo album Prom. The only difference on both of these versions is that they are less biting than the original. And no single track rises above the other as the next big sing-along standard. In many ways this seems to be the act’s Songwriter with a capital S Album. The hooks take second place to each track’s story, which does provide for a more cohesive album than their two previous efforts.

As a dual disk release, it’s frustrating and unnecessary, even if it is generous to fans who toggle between the two styles. But in this case, with the second set being clearly superior, editing it would’ve improved the overall effect of these songs. (After all, the last act I recall doing something similar to this is Shania Twain with Up‘s separate pop and country versions, and she’s not appealing to the same audience.) Though, when you’re a cult act, giving the fans everything they could possibly want is probably the smarter option.

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