Play It as It Lays
John Metzger's #11 album for 2007
Play It As It Lays: Memorable Song #2 for 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2007, Volume 14, #9
Written by John Metzger
Thu September 13, 2007, 05:30 AM CDT
Artists are born to tour, and the albums that they make are meant to keep them on the road, performing night after night for their fans. Somewhere along the line, however, many singers and songwriters ó particularly those who obtain a high level of mainstream acceptance ó lose their way. The process of recording becomes tedious, and the nights spent driving from town to town begin to be filled less with the promise of the open highway than with the nagging feeling that each town looks the same. Song cycles that are concocted from material that is designed simply to fuel an upcoming trek around the globe typically fare the worst.
It certainly isnít a coincidence that Patti Scialfaís latest effort Play It As It Lays was issued only a month prior to her husband Bruce Springsteenís latest set Magic. Likewise, the simple facts that she has become a principal part of the E Street Band and that he, along with Nils Lofgren, appears on many of the albumís tracks provide plenty of indication that her new songs are as bound as his to appear in the set lists for the coupleís upcoming string of concerts. Clearly Play It As It Lays was designed with all of these considerations in mind, but by exploring experiences that are painfully real and by enveloping her words in the mournful ache of earthy, í60s-derived soul, Scialfa deftly avoided the pitfalls that typically sink most arena-ready affairs. If anything, the unguarded approach with which she details the emotional turbulence of her recent marital woes likely will provide some interesting fodder for the tour, especially for those celebrity-watchers who are waiting for the fallout to hit.
Nevertheless, it initially appears as if Play It As It Lays will deal with global rather than personal politics. On the opening cut Looking for Elvis ó a spooky, moody refrain that conjures images of John Fogertyís murky, bayou-bred brand of blues ó Scialfa brushes away her tears, braces her emotions, and vehemently sings:
"I remember all those Septembers,
The pledges of allegiance, the prayers of trust.
Iíve slept on those beds of hope and promise,
Woke up choking on cheap paint and carnival dust.
So, where are you now,
All those illusions, fallen dreams and charity?
If faith restores you and truth delivers,
Then donít tell me that Iím standing when Iím on my knees."
As the album progresses, however, it quickly becomes clear that Scialfaís search for something or someone to trust has little to do with life in a post 9/11-world. Instead, sheís trying to reconcile her lingering love for her husband with her anger over his reported dalliance last summer. Expressed with an equal mix of vulnerability and strength, all of the tracks on Play It As It Lays ó revolve around issues of fidelity, trust, and heartache. In hindsight, Looking for Elvis can only be viewed as a quest to recover an innocence that has been ripped away.
Musically, the bulk of Play It as It Lays falls within the boundaries of the adult contemporary fare plied by Bonnie Raitt and Macy Gray, but whenever Scialfa wants to bind her words tightly to her husbandís actions, she invokes the epic of his songs. Itís telling, for example, that although Play Around generally falls somewhere between The Drifters and Sam Cooke, there also is an inescapable air of Springsteenís own work that not only lurks quietly in the background but also is framed by his haunting organ accompaniment. Despite the sweetly sorrowful tone of her vocals, when Scialfa sings, "Iím gonna call it quits/Baby, Iíve had enough/Donít wanna play cool/I donít wanna play tough," her message is impossible to miss.
Time and again, throughout Play It as It Lays, Scialfa paints portraits that are drawn straight from her husbandís songs ó the carnival gifts that are given in Like Any Woman Would, for example ó and turns them into poisoned arrows that reflect her anger, her sorrow, and her disappointment in him. Although she contemplates leaving (Word), she inevitably settles into Springsteenís warm, instrumental embrace on the title track, opting to pick up the pieces of her battered relationship rather than head to divorce court. On Black Ladder, the setís final tune, Scialfa lays her heart on the line while making a cautious plea for reconciliation. "Iíve been down your dark stairs/Tell me that our love matters/Tell me that you care," she sings with a heavy heart. Considering how deep Scialfaís lyrics cut, Springsteenís presence on Play It as It Lays provides the only answer that is needed, and although she hasnít regained her innocence, she has found the strength and courage to carry on.
Play It as It Lays is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box