Audrey Ryan, Dishes & Pills
(Folkwit Records, CD) Is there any musical genre designation less descriptive than “singer-songwriter?” Even more so than “alternative” or “indie,” the singer-songwriter label is injudiciously tossed around the industry, cutting a broad, generic swath across the music-writing landscape. It’s a total cop-out. Rather than investing effort into actually describing what an artist sounds like, it’s much easier just to call any guy or gal with guitar or piano a singer-songwriter and be done with it. Sure, the term generally conjures up visions of some lonely dude pouring his heart into confessional tunes penned in the late-night confines of a messy bedroom, or an angst-filled girl channeling her rage through a keyboard in a coffee shop. But here’s the problem: In the club listings of this very paper, you will see Boston’s Audrey Ryan listed as a “singer-songwriter.” Yes, she sings. And she even writes songs. But as her new album, Dishes & Pills, unequivocally proves, she’s not just a chick with a guitar.
Audrey Ryan is a chick with a guitar, keyboard, accordion, bass guitar, lap steel guitar, ukulele, piano, glockenspiel, violin, kalimba and a host of other noisemakers — including the intriguingly dubbed “weird harp thing.” The UVM graduate employs all of those instruments to near perfection on her second full-length album — released on the UK label, Folkwit Records. The result is a sprawling epic of indie-folk ingenuity.
Ryan spent years traveling through Asia, Africa and Australia, and it’s likely that her experiences abroad informed her unique approach to songcraft. Structurally, her tunes are pure pop. But she infuses her arrangements with a jazz sensibility, expertly decking out the tunes with all the bells and whistles — quite literally, in most cases.
Ryan has received a fair amount of regional press and has been favorably compared to a host of artists, from Joni Mitchell to Beck. While there’s some truth to those references, her work here more closely resembles the experimental folk orchestrations of Sufjan Stevens. Like Michigan’s eclectic tunesmith, Ryan excels at crafting quirkily diverse soundscapes that augment her intricate wordplay. Also like Stevens, her real strength lies in her subtly engaging songwriting; despite the wealth of aural delicacies found on Dishes & Pills, one gets the feeling that these songs would be just as effective if stripped down to guitar and Ryan’s charmingly expressive voice.
Singer-songwriter? I guess so. But as is often the case, the term does a terrible injustice to Audrey Ryan. She releases her new CD this Saturday at Radio Bean, where, once upon a time, she painted the door red . . . as a chick with a paintbrush.