“At first glance, Amy Speace doesn’t look like she has it in her. A perky blonde with a bubbly smile and a background as an actress in the National Shakespeare Company, Speace looks more like a ‘Saturday Night Live’ cast member than a singer-songwriter battling (and expertly chronicling) heartache.”
That’s what National Public Radio wrote about the Baltimore native in June 2009, when Speace was on the heels of “The Killer In Me,” an album which offered a title track that ended up being hand-picked by the powers that be at NPR to feature as a “Song Of The Day.”
And they were right.
One glance at Speace and you would never think she has the ability to offer up such heart-wrenching, pitch-black tones underneath a voice that bleeds sincerity.
But as it turns out, she does. And on her latest release, “Land Like A Bird,” the songstress provides more addictive tales of lost love and failure, all the while drawing comparisons to a voice that falls somewhere between Neko Case and Natalie Merchant’s pre-1990 10,000 Maniacs days (think the grit of the former’s brilliant 2009 effort, “Middle Cyclone,” and the latter’s pop appeal on 1987’s “In My Tribe”) sprinkled with a tiny bit of folk mainstay Shawn Colvin’s knack for storytelling.
Speace is her best here when she allows her skin-tight band to join the party. “Half Asleep & Wide Awake” features Kris Donegan’s stellar lap steel guitar that would fit perfectly on a bill with whatever band Ben Harper claims to be working with these days. The track builds and builds and builds before quietly retreating without ever really boiling over, creating a fantastic push/pull vibe throughout the entire song that makes it nearly impossible for any listener to turn away.
“Change For Me” is the best “Land Like A Bird” gets as the songwriter crafts a near-perfect pop song. The repetitive question “When you ever gonna change for me?” repeats itself mercilessly for an effect that is nothing short of infectious (in the best way, of course), and as the structure opens up for its radio-ready chorus, one has to question why more people don’t know Speace’s name. It’s the best pop/indie/rock female-led song that you’ve never heard.
Only when Speace keeps her fellow musicians away does the album begin to falter, though it’s not because she doesn’t know how to write a good song. It’s merely because she has yet to figure out how to successfully portray her down-and-out mood when surrounded by nobody but herself. “Ghost” is a valiant attempt at conquering such an issue, but she unfortunately comes up just a tad bit short, as the song ends up on the wrong side of boring, moody organ sounds notwithstanding.
Still, “Real Love Song,” the album’s final cut, finds itself on the other end of that equation and the minimalist approach just barely works, if for no other reason than the accompanying harmonies that add ambiance and shadow to the morose tone of the song. And her take on Ron Sexsmith’s “Galbraith Street” stands well on its own, regardless of the solo performance, though that accomplishment can largely be attributed to the song’s author (Let’s be honest — it’s hard to mess up a Ron Sexsmith song, no matter who you are).
All told, Amy Speace is sad. Just really, really sad. She’s sad about love. She’s sad about the seasons. She’s sad about change. And she’s sad about life. But “Land Like A Bird” is an exceptional piece of work that is able to guide even the happiest of people through her journey of despair and heartbreak in a way that is both accessible and poignant, a combination that is truly one of music’s great possibilities.
Her success in creating a record that is both credible and sensible puts her a few steps ahead of the game and light-years above most of her singer-songwriter peers.
So, yeah, Amy Speace might be sad. Though with the excellence and maturity she is able to convey on her latest album, the Baltimore native deserves to let a smile peek between those frowns every now and then.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***