You don’t work with as many people as Renee Coolbrith has because you lack talent.
Five minutes in her presence is enough to feel it ripple off of her. Five minutes in Yordprom Coffee on Congress Street with her is enough to see her exchange hugs with what feels like half the population of Portland’s West End.
She is among the few true rock stars who call the city home. She is unmistakable.
But through nearly a decade of releasing music, dozens of songs, she has always been a collaborator or a hired gun, like early Clapton or Busta Rhymes, known for her features on other people’s songs: OHX’s “Blades” with Trent Gay, Sarah Violet’s “Hometown,” Spose’s “Happy Right Now,” Joel Thetford’s “January Heartbreak.”
No longer. With her debut solo work, “A Killer Named Sugar,” she has put herself front and center like few solo artists around.
“I’ve been very spoiled and lucky with the stuff I get to work on,” Coolbrith says, her red lipstick and hair bright against a white T-shirt and copper-rimmed shades on a sunny day last week. “But I have a lot of songs. I have this problem with not being able to stop making songs.”
Listening to the record even the first time through, it’s hard not to make comparisons to Darien Brahms or Ray LaMontagne, figures who come through larger than life in a way that makes it hard to imagine their home lives and if they ever do mundane things like eat breakfast or do laundry. In person, she might even call Bebe Buell to mind with her presence, but Buell never had Coolbrith’s pipes (few do).
Of course, she has collaborators here, too. And who else could bring together outsider producer C$ Burns, known for goth hip-hop and deconstructionist popped-collar rock, with Luke Mallett, so rootsy he might as well be certified MOFGA organic? On “Lights Out” they combine to introduce a piano-driven vamp fueled by deep-bass synths that then explodes into an ’80s-pop chorus where Coolbrith is “turning up the heat!” and she’s “figured you out!”
It’s equal parts nostalgia vehicle and cutting-edge contemporary.
Old OHX friend Andrew Mead does especially heavy lifting, working with Caleb Sweet to craft a backing on “Kiss the Sky” that leads like the Cranberries on quaaludes, but then offers an emotion shift for the chorus that cover-art artists Patrick Corrigan referred to as “Vauxhall and I”-era Morrissey – and I get that, the loose-at-the-hips quality to it, Coolbrith somehow reveling in the melancholy so much she gets happy on the other side.
And on “Sigh” he and Sweet team again to create an esoteric bed that Coolbrith can lay more delicate vocals over, breathy and curious: “What were you like growing up?” Then Kris “Fingers” Rodgers comes in late with a keyboard solo like a tenor sax, adding the touch of yacht rock you didn’t realize you were missing.
“Andrew has a great way of bringing things to life,” Coolbrith says, “like changing the rhythm of a guitar strum … I had this melody that was stuck in my head for over a year.
“He’s a mastermind.”
Daryl Collins, too, proves himself a producer to watch with his work on “Nobody Else,” which has big-time Michael Jackson energy. “There’s something about the way he sang that I understood when I was young,” Coolbrith says when I suggest it. Like Motown, it struts with a kind of reserve: “I told ya you’ll be fine, girl.”
Elsewhere she tries on heavy rock and New Orleans horns-like outfits that always suit her.
“Sometimes, I’m not sure how it came out of my face,” she says, admittedly not a student of music theory or even someone who knows exactly what chord she’s playing on the guitar when she’s writing. Like watching movies in foreign languages for the challenge of it, Coolbrith wades into songwriting looking to capture the feeling and emotion first, let the details come later, or not at all.
“I’m always trying to learn things on the spot,” she says. “Hey, music nerd; hey, kid who went to school; hey, kid who knows how to read.”
It’s what lands her in situations like the one that created the closing track, “Sugar,” originally released (or was it – it doesn’t seem to be on the Internet anymore) as part of Odd Couple’s “Ladies” EP, where Mark Sayer played live drums while DJ Rew triggered samples of public domain tracks from the ’20s on an MPC player, the result a manic Dixie, a flapper dancing in a film sped up too fast.
It is vibrant and intoxicating. Like Coolbrith, who wouldn’t have it any other way.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
2 weeks, 5 songs
• Spose, “Hey Big Guy” — One of two songs released this week as a preview of Spose’s upcoming double album (yep, hard copy) “Get Rich or Die Ryan,” this is a six-minute opus, equal parts Yes-rock and crisp rap, addressed to his son and showing off Spose’s formidable dad skills: “It’s OK if you cry/ Don’t let them keep you bottled inside.”
• Eyenine, “Kentucky Derby” — From the full-length “A Little Above Low Key,” this is classic rapid-fire, aggressive, dismissive Eyenine, alternating with a Christopher Beggars-supplied rock chorus. This will get your heart going.
• Fiddlers Three, “Goodbye Liza Jane” — A pandemic project we should all be glad for, fiddlers Melissa Bragdon (Jerks of Grass), Kathy Sommer (the Buskers), and Ellen Carlson (New Hampshire Fiddle Ensemble) tackle this and 11 other bluegrass and old-timey traditionals on “Stuff that Works,” backed by the best of Maine’s acoustic musicians. For traditionalists, it doesn’t get much better than these three-part fiddle harmonies.
• Kafari, “Flowerworks” — The first single from the long and sprawling “Blanket of Black,” this ambient piece sways and shuffles, with something like a chair rocking in the corner, a repeating melody line, and pings of high-register keyboards. Soothing.
• Golden Rules the Thumb, “Decoration” — The closest thing to early Belle & Sebastian to come out of Portland in a while, this is an early taste of the brand-new full-length “Licorice,” which bears a deep listen.
— Sam Pfeifle