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STILL LIFE • Amee Chapman

I remember when my friends were into pretty much the same bands I was, but it's been a long time since then. If you and I were pals like that now, both of us hungry for similar sounds, I wouldn't have to talk to you about why Amee Chapman's album Still Life is one of my Top 10 CDs of 2004--I'd just say, "Listen to this record twice." The first time you played it, you might find it merely very agreeable--actually, "companionable" would be a better word. And then you'd consider how that's no small thing: few are the people with whom you would choose to make a meandering coast-to-coast drive, and few are the CDs that you listen to straight through without skipping any songs (and continue to play that way as the weeks pass).

You'd put it on a second time not really because I had suggested two spins but because her singing had located that place in your throat that's affected by the singers you like best. Although you would admire the ease and warmth of her voice and the choices she makes with a melody, the desire to play it again would be physical. The second time around, your appreciation of the songwriting would deepen as you traveled though the scenes the songs describe, enjoying lines like "Don't lose yourself to uneven ground" or "Why, why, why are you wearing that belt" or "Shadow puppets on the back 40 wall said all there was to say" or "Gotta come out of this with a story to tell." (All the songs on Still Life were written by Chapman and Nichole Robbins, and you'd wonder about their co-writing relationship and method but uncover no clues online, at least not yet.) Before long, lyrics like these would emerge from a musical atmosphere that might be tagged Americana by some:

"Like a mermaid who in the sun quietly drowns
I'm out of place inside my skin
And when the better part of a day lets me down
You are the sea tide that pulls me in"

Initially you probably wouldn't care who producer/engineer Desmond Shea had worked with previously or which San Francisco bands the various fine players came from, but you would soon begin appreciating the considerable wealth of subtlety and inventiveness in every track, the arrangements managing to feel old-shirt comfortable yet excitingly idiosyncratic in their details. (Your subsequent keen interest in Shea's projects would lead you to discover Hell Then Divine, the remarkable new release by Jeffrey Luck Lucas, whose cello and low harmony vocals also appear on Still Life.) The assiduous listener is rewarded with elegant and unexpected touches, the possible presence of which may have been signalled to you by that lovely, warm-green chord that lead guitarist Tony Mattioli uses when entering the blue-gray opening bars of the first tune. (Months later, you'll still be discovering cool new things in your headphones.) And finally, when everybody else has gone home, the closing cut stripped down to one woman's voice and her gently strummed acoustic, you'd feel moved as though you're receiving a message that's been left behind for you in an otherwise empty room.

While Still Life doesn't suggest that the artist was overly concerned with getting on the radio, you would nonetheless find yourself playing this disc in the car and at work and while doing the dinner dishes, not caught by hooks but held by the kind and knowing arms of a collection of performanes that really function as an album. There is nothing up tempo here--this beauty is of the slow and sure variety, and it dawns like the discovery that you're falling in love with someone you've known for years. When you came to realize what a great record this is, you'd just say to me, "Well, I listened to it twice..." We'd smile at each other and nod. You wouldn't feel the need to describe how this music won your heart--you'd figure it had been more or less the same for me. And you'd be right.  • James Meyers

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