In Brief: A delightfully rootsy comeback from a singer who I enjoyed back in the day, but honestly never expected to hear from again after she disappeared in the late 90s.
Susan Ashton isn’t exactly a household name. Her warm and slightly sassy vocals were a familiar fixture if you listened to Christian radio at all in the early to mid-90s, and after a stint as the opening act for Garth Brooks (who ended up covering her cover of the song “You Move Me” because he loved it so much), she made a brief foray into mainstream country music at the tail end of the decade, and then sort of fell off the map. Most fans of either CCM or country nowadays who got into those genres since the turn of the century have likely never heard of her. And while I can’t say that any of her albums back in the day were solid enough to make me a diehard fan, I did enjoy her work. Her 1996 album A Distant Call was just about the right blend of pop and country for my ears at the time, and her earlier single “Summer Solstice” still convicts the heck out of me. Some might have characterized her sound as “adult contemporary” – she was certainly easy-going enough to fit into that category at times, but then a gutsier, more “hard country” sort of song would come out of left field and remind me that she had a little more fire in her belly than that. Being trapped between the two worlds was part of the reason her career stalled out, but she’s making another go of it nearly a decade and a half after her previous album dropped, this time taking the independent approach with a surprisingly solid little EP called Thief.
Now this EP is almost a year old already, but I didn’t get around to checking it out until late last year – I was sort of hesitant. Even if she was an old favorite, how much would I really get nowadays out of a country-leaning, adult contemporary pop record? Question dodged – this thing is long on big steel guitars, mandolin and fiddle, and other forms of countrified instrumentation, without being so twangy as to lose its crossover pop/rock appeal, so it easily beats some of the keyboard-heavy misadventures that might have plagued one of her records back in the day. Would the songwriting would be as good as her most convicting songs from the old days? Well, her old pals Wayne Kirkpatrick and Gordon Kennedy are back on board, so the answer is an emphatic yes. Most refreshingly, this record is neither an intentional escape from the sometimes insular world of Christian music (it’s lyrics are pretty clearly faith-based) nor a full embrace of it (since Christian radio tends to be skittish about allowing anything to rootsy to slip through without trying to smoothen its edges). It could just as easily wind up in a playlist next to Margaret Becker as it could beside The Civil Wars. Out of its six songs, I’d say only two really go for that full-band pop/rock crossover sound, while the others are far more comfortable with a sparser, folksier style.
Mood-wise, Thief swings back and forth, from foreboding and confessional, to brash and confident, which makes sense as a sort of miniature document of what Susan’s gone through in the ensuing years. Deception and misplaced faith are huge themes here, coloring the more melancholy songs with a sense of having been put through the wringer and coming out wiser on the other side, which makes sense considering that she’s been through professional and personal disappointments alike – getting divorced, getting dropped from the mainstream label that was supposed to make her a star, etc. Ultimately, these songs reveal a woman who has learned to be a little more comfortable in her own skin and a little less willing to bend to the whims of others. It’s that assertion of identity that really makes this record work for me – this is a record that says, “This is who I was, how I learned the hard way from it, and who God made me to become in the aftermath of it all. I don’t need to be a huge celebrity, but I will also not be ignored or dismissed.”
I can’t think of a single thing not to love about the opening track, a haunting and sort of bluegrassy ballad, build around perfectly plucked banjo and mandolin, forlorn fiddle, and a bit of slide guitar. Susan’s voice expertly hangs on the tense notes at the end of each phrase as she sings about a bright light drawing unsuspecting innocents in to something that is ultimately far from good. “At the end of the day, it’s just borrowed light/There’s a dark side to the moonshine.” Thematically, this reminds me of the lesser-known Out of the Grey song “Winter Sun”, while musically, it sounds an awful lot like Nickel Creek in their prime. What this song really benefits from is the open space – other tunes on this record may bring in bass, drums, keyboards, and so forth to fill in the sound, but here, their absence suits the melancholy midnight mood.
2. Love Is Alive
Ashton hasn’t done covers on her previous albums – at least, not in the traditional sense of taking an already popular song and putting her own spin on it. Here, she takes on Gary Wright‘s hit song from the 1970s , which I’ll admit to not being familiar with, but Wikipedia tells me it was a “progressive rock” song in its original version, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say that redoing it with more of a folk/country bent took a bit of imagination. A smart, funky acoustic guitar riff drives the song, complemented by the banjo, and it’s a tough lick to get out of my head. While it isn’t the most driving rock song Ashton’s done so far (that’s coming up soon), her performance rings with genuine confidence, and even if the lyrics amount to a simplistic “commercial for generic love” sort of song, you can tell that it was chosen because the lyrics were appropriate to this season of her life: “I have lived only half of what I am/It’s all clear to me now/My heart is on fire/My soul’s like a wheel that’s turnin’/My love is alive.”
Like any country ballad worth its salt, you feel the sadness almost immediately in this one. It plays like a breakup song, but its implications are more spiritual, criticizing someone (an ex, a so-called friend, or maybe the Devil himself) for insidiously worming his way into her life and slowly stealing away everything she loved. Her indictment is a bit understated, played out over soft acoustic guitar picking, meeting up with a heart-rending cry from the slide guitar during the chorus, which instead of a big hook, resolves with the barely-there whisper of her accusation: “Thief.” it took me a while to appreciate how she underplayed this one, but I know what it’s like to slowly lose faith and not even realize the downward spiral into apathy that you’ve been riding, so I can really relate to her feeling of being robbed and violated here. “Rummaged around and cleaned me out/Yeah, you wrecked me and never made a sound.” It might just be the word “wrecked” that’s making me think this, but I bet The Wreckers could have come up with a song like this if they’d stuck together.
4. Become Myself
The loudest, boldest song on the album immediately announces itself with roaring electric guitars and unrelenting drums, easily as edgy as some of my old favorites of hers like “Walk On” and “Crooked Man”. It’s a song of being trapped in between salvation and folly, but it’s one that makes no apologies for being the work in progress that she is: “With God’s help, I’ll become myself.” The metaphors aren’t terribly deep here – “I’ve been the flame burnin’ bright/Been the match that wouldn’t light”, but they’re lots of fun and add a lot of character to a song that effortlessly draws you in and makes you want to belt out that chorus right along with her. The electric and acoustic guitars blend wonderfully with the Hammond organ, and everything is just so screamingly loud, at least by the CCM/country music standards you might have expected, that the song is bound to grab attention. If I had one criticism, it’s that the production has pushed everything so far into the red that the audio quality suffers a bit during the chorus as a result – not the kind of thing you’d notice as readily without headphones, but it is a bit of a victim of the loudness war, which is surprising when the production elsewhere is generally quite crisp and clear.
5. Wrong Well
This slower, piano-driven song is probably the most like the softer side of Susan that we heard frequently in the old days. It’s definitely a morality ballad, once again based around metaphor of something that seems good for you but turns out to do a lot of damage before you can even realize what went wrong, and I have to say, Susan’s always been good at delivering these sorts of songs with conviction even if I know they’re going to come off to some folks as a bit of a lecture. Despite the much smoother sound, backed by very gentle percussion and “fluttery” strings, I don’t think this one falls overboard into stock CCM production territory – it’s definitely more adult contemporary than country, but once again you can hear enough of the personal pain in her vocals to know that she’s singing about “drinking water from the wrong well” because she’s been there and lived to tell the tale. Personally, I think this song doesn’t quite maximize its potential for stark beauty, due to its repetitive chorus melody, which really needs to do something other than repeat the same notes on its fourth time through. The repetition only drags it down slightly, though – when I’m in the right mood, the song can still be quite thought-provoking.
6. Not Small
The final song, a delicate acoustic pop number which moves along briskly and sweetly, seems to be a declaration of Susan’s hopes for her career, her personal life, whatever lies ahead. “I don’t have to be the epic hero/Your beginning and your end-all/And I don’t have to be the biggest deal, no/I just want to be not small.” It’s the sort of aspiration that I admire in any singer – not wanting to take over the whole world of popular music, just wanting to be heard and understood and find that niche of people who really get you. It also makes me think of people in my life who are kind, but a bit on the quiet and shy side, who perhaps need me to talk a little less and listen a little more. Musically, this one isn’t flashy, but there is a gorgeous slide guitar solo during the bridge that comes back again to take us home at the end.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Love Is Alive $1.75
Become Myself $1.50
Wrong Well $1
Not Small $1.25
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: