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Review: 'Look Long' is Another Brave Entry in the Indigo Girls' Adventurous and Thoughtful Body of Work

by Kevin Schattenkirk
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday May 22, 2020
Review: 'Look Long' is Another Brave Entry in the Indigo Girls' Adventurous and Thoughtful Body of Work

Three and a half decades into their prolific career, the Indigo Girls release their fifteenth album, "Look Long," on Friday May 22. Songs such as the title track, "When We Were Writers," "Country Radio," "Muster," and album opener "Shit Kickin'" are immediate, while the rest of the album slyly works its way into the listener's subconsciousness. Where songs by Emily Saliers (such as the title track) are centered on strong melodic contours, those by Amy Ray (such as "Shit Kickin'") tend to provide a more rock edge to Indigo Girls' records. For instance, the clavinet, organ and gospel-inflected funk/rock of Ray's "Shit Kickin'" contrast with and compliments the wistful folk balladry of Saliers' title track. And sometimes, they challenge such notions. Saliers' hard-rocking "Change My Heart" struts like the Rolling Stones' "Bitch" (and strongly recalls the more brash rock of Indigo Girls albums like "Shaming of the Sun" and "Come On Now Social"); and the mandolin-centered country of Ray's jubilant singalong "Howl at the Moon" is musical kin with the Saliers-penned "Get Out the Map" from 1997's "Shaming of the Sun."

Lyrically, Ray and Saliers have always remained pretty much on the same page. They have a way of speaking both uniquely and on behalf of one another. Read through the lyric sheet to any of their albums without the credits and it might be challenging to discern who wrote which songs. And this only strengthens the sense of thematic unity and continuity throughout "Look Long." The approach here is decidedly reflective, sometimes autobiographical, and always rooted in curiosity.

On "When We Were Writers," Saliers probes what drives artistic expression, only to find the drive of youth ("I've had my day in the sun, that's no lie") never really deters the need to create when one has something to say ("plow through the stalks of your heart's tinder box, flint to the rock and you'll find you're still burning inside"). A few songs later, on "Country Radio," Saliers reflects on being "a gay kid in a small town" feeling an affinity with, and alienation from, a genre of music and the sense of community it cultivates. "That lonesome refrain, the secrets and pain, like only a song can know you; then I close my eyes, it's like I clicked my heels; that's me in the story and the story is real," she reflects of her beloved country music, but ultimately aware that as a queer person, she is not welcome. At least, during the time upon which she reflects — recent artists in the genre have been more outspokenly inclusive (Kasey Musgraves and Sturgill Simpson) or LGBTQ (Brandi Carlile and Shane McAnally).

Ray's "K.C. Girl" wonders what the life of a total stranger looks like outside of a brief, casual interaction. The wordless encounter compels questions: "You got a job to do, I like to be alone to watch the cityscape and," with self-deprecating humor, "think about how I'm old enough to be your mom." That the Kansas City girl to whom Ray offers gratitude for inspiring a song is either a cab or gig-economy driver is illustrative: "I was thinking of all our destinations; where do you go when no one's in the back?" Or more directly: Who are you, intriguing stranger? Haven't we all found our imaginations, at one point in time or another, stoked by similarly fleeting and indelible figures? On the B-52's-ish "Favorite Flavor," Ray observes her equally as a compelling and unique child, worrying "what am I gonna do when my neighbors won't let their kid play with mine?" Though the lyrics never specify why exactly, such concerns carry strong queer implications. What possibly could trouble the neighbors? The perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity (or non-conformity) of the child, the mother, or maybe both? Despite such worries, she and her child celebrate the 4th of July by offering songs, sparklers, and lollipops ("wild cherry, our favorite flavor") to their neighbors.

Throughout, the arrangements marry acoustic and electric instrumentation — banjos, violins, and mandolins intermingle with electric guitars, bass and keyboards. This is a full-band recording and as a consequence, the album retains a sense of continuity while preserving the distinct nature of each song. Admirably, backing vocal tracks by Lucie Jules, Lucy Wainwright Roche, and Lindsay Fuller often add color without ever intruding upon the Indigo Girls' signature aesthetic: Ray's and Saliers' vocal blend. The duo's harmonizations, octave doublings, countermelodies, and use of counterpoint are identifiably unique, and on this album they remain as creative and inventive as ever.

"Look Long" was produced by John Reynolds, who also plays drums on the album and produced the duo's bold "Come On Now Social" in 1999. While the new work doesn't overtly strive for the rocky terrain of the latter album, it does draw from a similarly ambitious well. If anything "Look Long" shares the tenor and spirit of "Swamp Ophelia" (1994) and "All That We Let In" (2004) but without ever being sonically derivative of those albums — whether or not it was intended, these three albums feel of a piece. All in all, "Look Long" holds its own song-for-song, and its cumulative impact feels good. Another brave entry in the Indigo Girls' adventurous and thoughtful body of work.

Indigo Girls
"Look Long"
$8.99 (digital download on May 22), $12.99 (CD on May 22), $21.59 (vinyl release on June 26)
Indigo Girls official website

Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.

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