Everyone gets songs stuck in their heads once in awhile, but lately I’ve been troubled by a full-on multimedia presentation. It’s of Sheryl Crow singing “Streets of Laredo,” and I think it all started about the same time I caught a glimpse of her revealing a crescent moon of gluteus maximus on the cover of a men’s magazine at a convenience store. I can picture the western-wear fetish video—all chaps and lariats and soft-focus sepia tints—and hear her brassing the vocals in that wide-open, corn-fed way of hers just as clearly as if she were singing it right in my ear. It’s troubling, I don’t mind telling you.
But this is not about cheeks, people. It’s about female singer-songwriters with such a solid command of their mannerisms that you can hear them singing without even hearing one of their songs. Choose the form of the destructor: Sheryl Crow, Jewel, Heather Nova, Fiona Apple, Tori Amos. You can close your eyes and imagine each of them singing a page from the phone book—and sounding exactly like they do on one of their albums!
Lucy Kaplansky has two particularly salient mannerisms and formidable control over both of them. One is the nasal inflection that gives her delivery a furnished attic and makes certain phrases (like “Snow bound siren in the winter dawn/There’s a blizzard blowing in from off the river”) peculiarly suggestive of a female version of the vocalist from the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. The other one, and there’s some overlap between the two, is a tendency to shear particular vowels into custom shapes: pressing them flat against her soft palate, taking a specific point in the arc of a good diphthong and focusing it like a laser beam, trying to squeeze long sounds through apertures made for short ones. “I,” for example, sounds variously like “uy,” “eh-hee” and an orthography-defying sound that comes slicing like a knife out of the chorus of “Guilty as Sin,” off her 2001 release Every Single Day. If English were a tonal language like Chinese, half of Every Single Day would mean something completely different from what it does.
Hers is a nice enough voice, mannered enough to merit a slot on my tribute album to the Qwest directory but not unduly labored, and perfectly suited to the fey romance of her lyrics. Well, it ought to be suited: She wrote ‘em! Kaplansky began singing as a teenager, moving to New York in 1977 and keeping company with a cabal of future folkie icons including John Gorka and Shawn Colvin. Then she quit music on the verge of success with a duet with Colvin and pursued a doctorate in psychology. After a 10-year hiatus, Kaplansky returned with the Colvin-produced debut, The Tide, and signed to Red House Records. As another famously nasal singer once noted: Everybody needs a little time away.
Lucy Kaplansky plays the Blue Heron Friday, April 19 with opener Amy Martin. Tickets are $10. Show starts at 9 PM.