This latest offering from Nashville's most enigmatic ensemble rather flies in the face of their last two releases What Another Man Spills and Nixon, on which they moved towards a sleek, understated soul sound heavily influenced by Curtis Mayfield. Instead, Is a Woman reverts to something closer to their earlier languid style, delicately poised on the cusp of country and easy-listening.
It's also less varied in pace, mood and texture, an approach explained by songwriter Kurt Wagner's desire to "make a record that could be introduced with the solitary sound of a single piano and ended with the same type of 'feel', yet somehow changed through the experience" – rather as one's character remains essentially consistent through all life's bruising impositions. Also, unlike previous releases, Wagner's vocals were the first element recorded, rather than the last, with the main accompaniment provided by the limpid piano of Tony Crow, heretofore a fringe member of the band.
The core sound of the album is completed by engineer Mark Nevers' ambient guitar noises (in the vein of Michael Brook or Bill Dillon), which lend a weightless, ethereal tone to the songs. The rest of the ensemble add subtle colouration over this basic ground, as each song demands: warm saxophone on "The New Cobweb Summer"; spooky organ on "Bugs"; and on several tracks the glistening vibes which give the album the feel of being suspended in a shimmering heat-haze.
This is entirely appropriate, given that Wagner composed the songs in the tranquil surroundings of his back porch; his reveries triggered by the small noises of bugs, birds and squirrels disturbing the perfect calm. Delivered in his familiar halting, avuncular manner, they take the form of random impressions, observations and musings which somehow magically organise themselves into songs, as if by accident. Wagner focuses as usual on the bare facts of life, particularly love and death, both those imposters treated with equally elegant restraint in songs such as "The New Cobweb Summer", where he acknowledges, "The universal man/ Holds a pistol or a bottle/ Types with confidence/ As we grow out of our bruises." Those bruises take many forms: the deaths of several friends' parents, a close friend's attempted suicide, the crippling weltschmerz that brings on "My Blue Wave" and the everyday aggravations of capitalism that inform "The Daily Growl" ("Powered by Intel/ The useless crap you sell/ Will leave us/ More or less annoyed").
Shining through it all, though, is an apprehension of the salvational power of love, particularly the enduring, evolving love of a long-term relationship. The result is an unashamedly mature, even middle-aged album that bears out the Wordsworthian adage about "recollection in tranquillity". As Wagner sings in "Flick", "Like a chamber from a gun/ After the shooting's done/ This is what you have become/ Now make something out of it."Reuse content