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Play It As It Lays

Patti Scialfa

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Reseña de álbum

Patti Scialfa's second album, 23rd Street Lullaby, was a paean to the romantic, wild, unbridled joy of running around the New York City of the '70s — a place that no longer exists — as seen through the eyes of a wiser, seasoned, yet untamed adult heart. Play It as It Lays is its mirror image. Released just a shade over three years later (a brief time for Scialfa, whose debut set Rumble Doll was released in 1993) the songs on Play It as It Lays deal with doubt, heartbreak, betrayal, uncertainty, anger, and restlessness, and find redemption in embracing them all as part of the whole. Co-produced with Steve Jordan and Ron Aniello, Scialfa's songwriting has developed into something so focused that its economy and its sharpness are as becoming as a shiny new stiletto — one that cuts deep but leaves the most beautiful of scars. The band employed here is essentially the same (without the high-profile guests spots of Marc Ribot and John Medeski): Willie Weeks, Nils Lofgren, Clifford Carter, and Bruce Springsteen (who are affectionately dubbed the "Whack Brothers Rhythm Section"), with Michelle Moore, Cindy Mizelle, Curtis King, and Soozie Tyrell (who also plays violin on a pair of cuts) helping on backing vocals. But the sound, while rooted in the same blend of American roots styles that Scialfa's songs always have, is wider and deeper. There is more reliance on blues, soul, and gospel here while the rootsy back porch, street corner rock & roll, and countrified folk are retained.

These ten songs are tight, there isn't an extra word in any of them. The melodies are taut like wire, enveloping her words, and the plights, determinations, and failings of her protagonists are filled with passion, Eros, and agape, the purest love of all. What's more, it feels like this is a record of survival and the guts to go on, to be wrong, if that's what it takes, and move forward with all of that mess now on the canvas. Her subjects — though she speaks solely in the first person in each song here — are steeped in a passion for living, not just in their souls, but in their bodies, in their heads, for the experience that love promises yet whose shadow always delivers. And they accept it, while refusing to settle for anything less.

A dulled, primal tom tom and a dobro introduce the album's country-blues drenched first track, "Looking for Elvis." The title may seem a cliché, but the lyrics and melody are anything but. The protagonist travels to someplace "south of nowhere" looking for something, longing to be somewhere, anywhere other than where she found herself before flight. She's wrapped in grief, betrayal, and disillusionment and asks the real existential question of the empty raining sky: "So where are you now/With all those Illusions/Fallen dreams and charity/It faith restores you/And truth delivers/Then don't tell me I'm standing/when I'm, on my knees..." however, by track's end, she finds what she needs, not outside but at the crossroads inside herself, at the crossroads "West of Babylon/East of Eden/I'm breathing in these winds of change/I'm going to rise up from these ashes/Gonna rise up and find the truth again..." the backing vocals enter with a gospel refrain and underscore every line; Scialfa sings with the big red river of truth falling from her mouth like rushing water over the rocks. And this song is the beginning of a journey, where desire and brokenness go to war inside the heart of the woman who wants to know, has to know, if she's been living a lie. No matter the outcome, what's left is pulsing, rippling and rampant: faith, hope, love (both carnal and divine), companionship, and wholeness. If there's any doubt, just dig deep into the disc's second tune, "Like Any Woman Would," where a lap steel and cracking rim-shot snare wind around the acoustic guitars and usher in the lyric with the support of a call and response backing chorus. She offers her view; she wonders what her partner's love really means, and speaks of the wounds she and all women feel at being regarded as something "less than." "Play Around" is a soft, sweet, soul tune that Scialfa's grainy reed contralto delivers big in. Her delivery is relaxed as it floats above a B-3, hand drums and a drum kit before the band fully kicks in. She's ready to walk: "I'm not going to walk/On your high wire/I'm not going to jump/Through all your little hoops of fire...This is no day of judgment/I'm not waiting for you to confess...I'm not waiting on anything/I'm just walking free/Well you can play around/But don't you play around me..." The tune is brief, and its melody and dynamic are soothing, yet the lyrics are loaded.

As it moves on through the funky wanton delight of "Rainy Day Man," with its sultry lyrics and even sexier delivery strolling through early-'60s shuffling rhythm & blues, the listener can clearly hear the singer walking through the desert of ambivalence. There is a core belief in the redemption of love that will not be shaken in the heart no matter what seems to be transpiring on the surface of life. But it's a realistic view: she's way past the knight in shining armor, she's looking for a promise of totality, but is willing to pay whatever price necessary to get there — including the truth that the Other is always as far from perfect as she is. "The Word," emerging from the blues, creatively uses the "Sally Go Round the Roses" (and credits it), as a look at the unvarnished truth, no matter how wide the contrast is with what she believes.

Ushering in the title cut, a shuffling funky backbeat is underscored gently by an acoustic guitar, a soft B-3 and Tyrell's violins. The narrative location is once more an empty road — just as on the opener — and the time of reflection is over. It gives way to an acceptance of the protagonist's own faults as well as those of her Beloved: "Every perfect picture /hides a mess or two/Sometimes it's me/Sometimes it's you..."But I remember the first time/That I lay down inside your arms/And how I kissed your tired mouth/So full of grace/So empty of harm/And I how I knew/The road ahead/ Would unravel itself/Cursed and charmed/And I would just/Play it as it lays..." the recollection of "through thick and thin, no matter what" gets revealed, and the personal accountability here, wrapped so sweetly and tenderly in this melody reveals nothing less than courage: to see it as it is, and to continue walking bloody and torn. It's far from codependent: it's honest and it is as if the singer is looking at herself in a mirror with the reflection of her Beloved behind her speaking the words to him while looking hard at herself. Such beauty can only be heartbreaking. The set ends with "Black Ladder." Despite its title, it's a love song. She has seen the deepest wells of darkness in her lover's heart, and he's seen hers. What's left is simply that love, kicked around, bruised and torn, remains, and the cracks have created something so much more open and free: the freedom to offer love for its own sake, and for the sake of the Other. The freedom to accept the same. At just over two minutes, with a Rhodes piano and an acoustic guitar, it's the most skeletal song on the album. And it needs to be. Scialfa's voice is way up front. It's one of the quietest anthems ever. There is real vulnerability here, and the protagonist is far stronger for the courage to reflect it in her own eyes and read it in the eyes of the other. The track simply ends, a second or two after he final words: "I still care."

Play It as It Lays may be melancholy and downright dark in places, but it never feels oppressive. It doesn't need to bet on the silver lining — even if it's only a sliver of one in places — because there's a resiliency, an unshakable faith, that living itself is a lining. This is the place where we get to see the fully developed, crafted songwriter at her best. It is the unfairness of the culture that we've had to view her in the shadow of her husband's stature, but no more. While Rumble Doll bravely tested the waters of songwriting and recording, and 23rd Street Lullaby offered increased confidence in the real possibilities those endeavors would pay off in and of themselves, Play It as It Lays is, without doubt, the record where Scialfa gives us the full fruit of her exceptional gift as a writer, a singer, as an artist. (Now, if she'd only tour...)

Biografía

Nacido(a): 29 de julio de 1954 en Long Branch, NJ

Género: Rock

Años de actividad: '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Until she started releasing her own albums, New Jersey singer/songwriter Patti Scialfa was best known as a backing vocalist for her husband Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. Scialfa began her musical career after she graduated from NYU. She took to busking in Sheridan Square in the center of Greenwich Village. She began playing on the Big Appple's club scene in the early '80s and sang backup for rock acts on tour and in the studio, including David Johansen, the Rolling Stones, and Southside Johnny...
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Play It As It Lays, Patti Scialfa
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