The first time anyone had ever heard of Lissie was in 2009, when she was singing over Morgan Page’s spacy techno beats in clubs across the USA. Based on that sampling (which won a Grammy after house supergroup Deadmau5 remixed it), one could have expected her to fade into the background as do the many artists who work in the niche market of club music. However, Lissie appeared shortly after, releasing an EP that drew critical acclaim and attention for its folksy acoustic appeal. For those who were looking for Lissie to return to this formula on her new album be warned, “Catching a Tiger” is not that album. It is, however, a divergent collection of songs that displays Lissie’s versatility both vocally and musically; it is an impressive freshman effort.
In “Yes Man,” a recently released movie starring Jim Carrey and Zooey Deschanel, the two main characters sneak into a concert stadium and sit out among the myriad empty seats, gazing at the stage, wondering what it would be like if someone were playing there for just the two of them. The experience of “Catching a Tiger” is the same – the feeling of a personal concert in a nearly empty stadium.
This is not to say that the album has the kind of feel of a typical man-and-guitar grassroots – the warning to those seeking a quiet acoustic compilation still applies. Lissie manages to achieve the effect of a personal appearance through her slightly less than polished electric guitar that seems to echo throughout your bones, her chillingly expressive voice that raises the hair on your skin, rather than through simplicity, the living room performance one might get from a Dylan-esque type artist.
On “In Sleep,” she croons softly of a lover lost, wondering “Why am I so terrified of waking? / He’s gone and I feel I’ve been forsaken / In sleep is the only place I get to see him, get to love him,” but later in the song switches gears and turns to a raw, emotionally accurate guitar solo to round out the tune.
Her voice, combined with the bare twang of her Telecaster, adds another layer, giving it an updated Motown feel, akin to what would result from a fusion of The Edge’s clean, reverberating chords (minus the packed arena over-dramatization) with Bryan Adam’s raspy tones, with more range and rasp, and less chintzy pop lyrics.
From a songwriting standpoint, Lissie wrote every song on the LP, and it shows. On “Cuckoo,” an upbeat song that comes far closer (at some points too close) than any other song to crossing the “pop music” barrier, she employs meaningful and edgy lyrics that keep the song from falling into the generic category of girlhood rebellion. It feels instead like a celebration of her own experiences, as she sings, “I fell in love with being defiant / In a pick up truck that roared like a lion,” and hints playfully that “we were brave,we misbehaved / Yeah you know what I mean.” “Loosen the Knot” is a breakup song hidden behind a jumpy beat and lyrics that go outside the norm, as she tells her significant other that “I wanna loosen up loosen up / Loosen the knot / The knot that is holding us / Binding us / Tying us together now,” and on “Oh Mississippi,” she invokes nature in a fashion reminiscent of old bluesmen like Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Johnson, all while sounding eerily similar to Emmylou Harris.
She writes of a peaceful passing and reflects on life, showing her maturity in understanding the circular connection between people and the earth as she sweetly sings “Oh witness river / You have seen it all / Now do your waters / Have room for one more?”
If there is anything about this album that may be frustrating for some, it is the lack of stylistic consistency throughout.
The lineup of the songs could be organized differently, but there are so many choices in composition that Lissie makes, even within one track, that any effort to make the album cohesive would be rendered relatively futile.
That being said, the various modes she is able to bring into one song, let alone on the different songs on the record, is impressive. “Record Collector,” which kicks off the album, begins as one might expect an indie female songwriter’s debut to sound, making use of unique percussion and jaunting melody. Halfway through, however, the indie vibe fades and a church style rejoice begins.
Like a Baptist preacher, she starts slow, drawing out every word with an eerie chorus of voices providing a subtle background, then gains speed, power, and volume, rising to a feverish crescendo where her voice breaks ever so slightly, perfectly.
On “Little Lovin,” she gracefully represents West Virginia mountain blues, displaying a power in her voice that is unrivaled by any other track on the album. “Look Away” blends the banjo and a harp into a song that uses the echo effect present on the whole album to produce a track sounding more like a prayer set to music than a song written by a green young woman, and comparisons between “Stranger” and pretty much anything by the Turtles and their contemporaries in the 60’s would not be a stretch.
The jazzy (albeit muted) Hammond B-9 on “Worried About” adds flair to a track that is nowhere near jazz in spirit. She even manages to do an updated yet completely faithful cover of “Wedding Bells” by Hank Williams, checking Country off her to-do list of musical influences for the record. Genres do not seem to have a place in Lissie’s music – all styles are fair game to be manipulated, updated, and blended with pretty much anything that strikes her fancy.
Not every track on this album is stellar. As mentioned before, “Cuckoo” can be trying at times, as it is placed right in the middle of the album and robs it of its non-commercial appeal. “Bully,” a piano ballad, is dreadfully boring.
Despite these misses, the record remains incredibly strong, backed by the outstanding tracks that frame the two mistakes. The breadth of musical influence, mature lyrics, and surprisingly strong vocals, both in range and tone, allow this record to serve as an announcement to the music community – Lissie is here, and if she continues to take stylistic risks, and does not succumb to mainstream success, she will be here to stay.
Daniel Ream is a third-year English secondary education major and can be reached at DR729079@wcupa.edu.