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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Exene finds the folkie within

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Exene Cervenka
(Photo by J Edge)
So what happens to a former punk goddess nearly 30 years after her band's prime as the best band on L.A.'s punk scene? For Exene Cervenka, she's doing what she's done since her days as lead singer of X: making more music.

Only, no one should expect any punk numbers from Somewhere Gone, released Tuesday on Bloodshot Records. Far from the intensity of Exene's work with X, Auntie Christ or the Original Sinners, this record is simple country-folk. However, Exene's voice also lacks the faux-twang one finds on releases from the Knitters, her country outfit with her X bandmates and Dave Alvin.

What we find here from Exene is a beautiful, and at times vulnerable, singing voice. After almost three decades as a performer, she may be showing us her true singing voice for the first time -- and it's something truly impressive to hear.

The beauty of the album's vocals shine brightest on "The Willow Tree," an ancient ballad and the only track not written by Exene, she duets with Amy Farris, and the result is delightful.

Listening to this tale of heartbreak and the feeling that relief lies in death, one perhaps sees the connection between soft folk music and punk rock. Both are expressions of desolation; they just deal with it in different ways.

While many of the tracks favor a simple approach, with Exene on guitar and vocals with only a violin or cello and perhaps backing vocals, others favor a slightly larger approach, with an additional guitar, keyboards, bass and percussion.

Some nice moments come from the piano work of Joe Terry on "Fine Familiar" and "Walk Me Across the Night," as well as his organ work on other tracks.

The sound never gets too big, though. Exene's voice and poetic lyrics remain front and center. When she croons "I'm just trying to make an honest mistake/out of you" on "Honest Mistake" we hear downer words that can be delivered with a smirk. Again, we see a connection to punk.

But to talk too much about Exene's past work would be a mistake. When an artist's past work can be regarded as seminal/iconic/great, odd things can happen to the release of future albums. Fan and critical reviews often fall into one of two categories:

1) The work in question is compared to the classic stuff, found to be different and, often inaccurately, woefully inadequate. The artist is disregarded off-hand as not having "It" anymore.

2) The album is given a free pass. A great artist made it, so it must be great art.

Unfortunately, both of these assessments are completely unfair to the artist and the art. The new album should be taken for what it is: a brand-new album.

And so it should be with this outing. Forget the earlier stuff, regardless of genre. That doesn't matter to this record.

Somewhere Gone is its own album -- and it's pretty good.

My spin: B

Somewhere Gone is a glimpse inside Exene's heart and mind that we haven't seen before, at least not so accessibly. It is perhaps no coincidence this thoughtful album comes on the heels of her June announcement that she has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

It's more likely, though, that a successful artist for three decades wanted to explore a different side of her ability. What she found was something very nice.

Exene Cervenka

Somewhere Gone

The players: Exene Cervenka-vocals, guitar; Amy Farris-cello, viola, violin, backing vocals; Cindy Wasserman-backing vocals; Jason Edge-guitar, bass, percussion, Dex Romweber-piano, organ; Lou Whitney-bass; Joe Terry=piano, organ

Producer: Exene Cervenka

Released: Oct. 6 on Bloodshot Records

Learn more at: www.exenecervenka.com or www.bloodshotrecords.com

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