Jill Freeman, “A Handmade Life.” A Review
A Handmade Life
By PAUL ZOLLO
All Lyrics by JILL FREEMAN
I dress in rags, I suck on stones
Sometimes hunger shakes my bones
But deep inside, below the strife
I have a precious handmade life
From “A Handmade Life”
A masterpiece of audacious proportions. A stunning, truly ambitious achievement. The kind of album songwriters talk about someday making. As in “Yeah, someday I am going to choose, like, thirteen of my favorite fairy-tales – including some really dark ones – and write a song about each.” And you go, yeah, yeah! Good idea. Some day.
Well, she’s done it. A Handmade Life is a remarkable journey through the mystic world of myth. Each song is lovingly and luminously inspired by a fable, some of which are ancient – while others, such as “Completely Unaware, ” based on The Wizard of Oz books by L. Frank Baum – are slightly more modern. This is timeless and visionary stuff, resonant with the symbology of the ages, yet also brand new. Though many of these myths have been around for eons, they speak directly to modern times.
If Rickie Lee Jones, Lou Reed and Laura Nyro were to collaborate on songs with Kurt Weill and Edgar Allen Poe and made an album produced by Tom Waits and Daniel Lanois, they might create something like A Handmade Life. Or not. Words fail to define that which is beyond words, so we reach for convenient comparisons. But some things – including deeply felt, beautifully executed art – exist in a realm beyond words. And that’s why God invented song. And songwriters like Jill Freeman to write them.
Mythic, mystic and magical, this is a song-cycle that unfolds like a great theatrical spectacle. We meet a multitude of characters, some wounded, some wicked, all mysterious and essentially human. Within each story comes a distinct facet of the human psyche, and the struggle to make sense of an illogical world. We journey through a great procession of stories, all united by the voice of “heartache’s daughter,” the deep yearning love in the heart of these songs. It’s a cycle that weds human darkness – and hopeful “bits of light” – with melodies of great heart, charm and mystery. At the start and end of this journey of much darkness, some murder, mayhem, hunger and death, there is redemption. There is the light at the end of the human tunnel.
My aching search
For loving kindness
Is the light that leads me there.
From “The Light That Leads Me There.”
A deeply gifted songwriter, she compresses these fables down into beautifully rhymed and metered verse like romantic poetry of yore, finding the essence of each myth and making it musical. She unwinds these tales with an elegant economy of language. As in the core of great storytelling, there are no wasted words.
Crazy wisdom ancestor
Pit of my desire
Grant me your blessings
Give me eyes of fire
From “Eyes of Fire”
Other examples of language use both stark and stunning abound. “The Inside Room,” based on the Arthurian legend of “The Fisher King,” uses short, poignant haiku-like lines to embody this character of few words, forever fishing in the mystic:
Barefoot, cold rock
Drops of water
Hook, no barb
On a bamboo pole
In the deepening silence
I fish for my soul
From “The Inside Room.”
She’s long been beloved on the L.A. songwriting-singer scene. With the Life Is Grand Band and as a solo artist, she’s not only one of the best songwriters around, but also one of the finest singers. Bringing a powerfully poignant and focused tenderness to her lead singing, she’s also a remarkable harmony singer, lending a warm, loving blend to anything she touches.
Her vocals on this new album are resplendent: ethereal and earthly, dynamically delicate, combining all the voices she has and more to tell these stories with all the darkness and co-mingled light intact. Sometimes it’s a voice jazzy and cagey, sometimes strong and pointed. Other times it’s wispy and vulnerable – like a little girl lost in the woods, abandoned maybe, as the sun starts going down. Her voice, raw and open, set against a single ukulele strum and the sounds of the world roaring around her, opens the show:
I have slept in cold and lonely places
With no comfort but the ground
From “The Light That Leads Me There”
But often it’s the omniscient voice of the story-teller, that ancient soul who has woven magic into our lives for centuries. The soul who dances in the forever joy of music itself, as in the great scat section of “No Hands,” just jamming, beyond words, celebrating the joy of life even without hands.
She’s always been a remarkable songwriter, one who – like John Prine and Randy Newman – can bring humor and sorrow to the same song. Beautifully poignant yet whimsical gems like “Everything Makes Me Cry,” about being a raw nerve in the world (aka artist), from her previous album, resound like standards.
But this might very well be her definitive album. Every artist at some point creates the one album that defines them forever. This is that album. It’s a dream nurtured and born, a vision realized.
Songs, and these songs especially, are the ideal vehicle for the surreal landscapes of fairy-tales. Written in meter and rhyme and wed to melody, these myths become even more potent than the spoken word. As revealed at every stop on this musical journey, within a song a full story can be contained. Revelations often emerge in the middle, in the chorus, like the sun around which all planets spin. The songform propels the narrative in a non-linear way, with time flowing from the center, as if in a series of dreams. The result is chilling and unforgettable.
Listen to “No Hands.” It’s all there. A jaunty and jazzy plea based on “The Handless Maiden” by The Brothers Grimm, it’s about a woman navigating the world without hands. Hands stolen by the haunted man inside of her. It’s dark, beautiful territory. And it swings with soul. It’s an extreme equation, this human so destitute in every way, forced to steal a pear from a tree, homeless, hungry and, yes, handless. Yet the character speaks with a simple and brave dignity. And with yearning for something so fundamental. These are bold and brilliant brush-strokes, crystallized with a powerfully simple yet visceral melody,and the picture is stunningly complete:
Oh God, to hold a hand in mine
Watch the fingers intertwine
To feel with my own fingertips
The softness of my lover’s lips…
From “No Hands.”
These tracks are all based on arrangedments by Jill, and produced by her husband, the great Joel Wachbrit. With sonics dynamic and dimensional throughout, the production of each song is as beguiling as the vocals and the songs. That the producer and artist are married makes sense, as the production here is intimate and perfect, so sensitive to every element of every element, like the beautiful symphonic splendor of the Oz song, “Completely Unaware,” with strings arranged by Jack Van Zandt. It’s absolutely sumptuous, as majestic and ageless as that mythic Emerald City. It’s an ending that’s absolutely exultant, with Jill scat-soaring over the orchestra of strings and muted horns, evoking such diverse spirits, from Oz itself to old Hollywood and beyond.
Get up and dance a jig with me, as if it was your last
I’m not trying to be coy, it’s essential
Then write down all your thoughts, quickly
Those future and those past
Don’t lie, don’t cheat
Here’s a pencil
From “Welcome To The Bonehouse.”
She explores the hidden interiors of these tales, the stories that resonate, and the reasons for that resonance. It’s about the child in all of us yearning always for stories. And some stories – that ones that last, speak directly to the deepest parts of our soul: the ancient, primal parts, the human essence forever fearful of forces too big or mysterious to fight.
“Letters From Murdertown” resounds like the theme song of the album, like notes from dreams sent to the waking self. It contains an understanding that some things we encounter are beyond understanding, some darkness perhaps too dark to fathom, and maybe even beyond capturing with words. But in songs the fullness of the dream can be captured, as it’s bolstered by this mesmeric ¾ dark waltz-time groove, both compelling and creepy. And Jill’s earnest vocals in the midst of it, like the last sane voice in a crowded asylum, is aching and perfect, as she sings in finely-detailed lines of perfect rhyme:
I miss my home of origin
That dusty cornered land of sin
Where good and evil all mix in
Cotton candy, bathtub gin
So if you see me smiling
All wistful and beguiling
You’ll know my heart is filing
Letters from Murdertown
Letters from Murdertown
From “Letters From Murdertown”
Add to that Mike Nelson’s outrageously elastic clarinet solo in the middle, set against a choir of Jills, and the result is like a great surreal movie, brand new and now and yet timeless, evoking ghosts which have been dormant for decades.
The musicianship throughout is stellar, led by Jill on acoustic guitar with Joel on electric and acoustic guitars throughout. Debra Dobkin provides deep grooves throughout on percussion and drums, with Steve Nelson on bass, Tommy Reeves on keyboards, Judy Rudin on harmonica, Claudia Russell, Aeone Watson and Severin Browne on harmony vocals, Bruce Kaplan on mandolin, George Landress on dobro and harmonium, Bob Sheppard on bass clarinet, the Eclipse String Quartet on strings, Mike Nelson on baritone sax, tenor sax and clarinet. The luminous April Hava Shenkman (aka my brilliant cousin) provides the manic voices in the head of “Welcome to the Bonehouse.”
As mentioned, this album of considerable darkness begins and ends wrapped with light, in the sweet top and tail of “The Light That Leads Me There,” based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling.” Set out in the wild in the opening, the sounds of bedlam brewing, by the end we have reached a peaceful place. Jill’s no longer alone in the wild world, but now joined beautifully by full band and then many voices, sharing this crucible of life, underscored hauntingly with Uillean pipes played by Dave Champagne.
I’ve seen many things on this brutal earth
The horrific and the sweet
From the way the violence tumbles forth
To the flowers at my feet
And I’ve pondered as I wandered
On the mystery of man
Why does such a privileged creature squander
All the gifts that he commands?
Still I shall find my way
And I will know my people
They’ll embrace me with deep care
You see my aching search for loving kindness
Is the light that leads me there.
From “The Light That Leads Me There.”
It brings to mind Warren Zevon’s excitable message to co-writer Jorge Calderon after writing another great song: “Jorge,” he said, “You know, this is high art.” He knew it, and it’s true. High art. It’s stuff for the ages. Both inventive and inspired, these are paintings by artists aiming for masterpieces. Gratitude abounds that even in these modern times, these times in which many declare the album format dead forever, there are still artists like Jill and Joel still aiming so high, still making the kinds of albums we always lived for.
For more on this album and this artist: www.jillfreeman.com