Out of Left Field and Into Your Heart

Dancing with dangerous abandon on a razor-sharp divide between classic country & western and trailer-park kitsch, Grey De Lisle's Home Wrecker offers a surprisingly wide palette of multi-dimensional musical pleasures, thanks to Marvin Etzioni's sly production and De Lisle's prodigious vocal prowess and songwriting grace.

While De Lisle's torch-twang singing and much of her lyrical word-play is firmly rooted in the Nashville working-class ethos of the '50s and '60s, Etzioni's eclectic settings identify a producer with wide-ranging musical tastes and a record collection up to the challenge. Etzioni, bassist for critics' fave cowboy/punk hybrid Lone Justice, was the used-record buyer at Aaron's on Melrose Avenue in L.A. at the dawn of the CD era. All of the vinyl riches that ended up on Aaron's shelves back then filtered through his cherry-picking hands.

Looking back, I remember personally handing him a treasure-trove of original U.K. pressings in favor of what I later realized were far inferior-sounding but impeccably pressed Japanese reissues. Fortunately for me, I woke up in time to get them all back before prices skyrocketed, but I have no doubt Etzioni put on his best poker face as I handed him some of my treasures!

But back to our story. Home Wrecker opens with "Borrowed and Blue," a tear-jerking country lament sung from the perspective of a strung-along woman who keeps waiting for her secret lover to get his long-promised divorce so he can marry her. "Long ago, you promised you would leave her. We would raise a family of our own. But years have passed and this naïve believer could be walking down the aisle all alone," De Lisle recites solemnly before breaking into the bridesmaid's chorus, capped by "Baby you're still borrowed, I'm still blue."

Etzioni replaces the slick "Countrypolitan" string sections found on '60s Nashville productions with subtly eerie synth tracks (arranged by Modern Folk Quartet/Lovin' Spoonful veteran Jerry Yester) that give the song a more up-to-date, almost ominous feel. But the star of the track is, appropriately, De Lisle, who sells the song with old-fashioned Loretta Lynn/Tammy Wynette piping power. The singer possesses impressive control of the upper reaches of her range and is capable of enormous dynamic leaps and swoops. Believe me, she's got the goods.

"Usted," sung in Spanish and one of two non-originals among the 10 tracks, is a Paris, Texas-like bitter border ballad backed by acoustic guitar and a rattle snake-like shaker. You need not understand the words to feel the emotions. De Lisle, speaking in English at the end after the fashion of film dialog, says, "I would even give my life to overcome my fear of kissing you."

"Beautiful Mistake," skillfully mixed to mono (the rest is stereo) by Bernie Grundman, tackles the joy tinged with sadness and regret of unwed motherhood with a soaring, gorgeous melody. The album holds songs dealing with many other familiar themes in the C&W canon that have been updated and given musical facelifts without severing their roots. Don't expect to be driven into a musical rut, though: if you listen carefully, you'll hear Etzioni's musical eclecticism. Especially surprising and refreshing is the "Papa Was a Rolling Stone"-like, wah-wah-tinged "Dead Cat," the E.C. & the Attractions-ish "The Hole," and "Frozen in Time," which Chris Isaak would have been happy to have written during his most creative period. Nothing on this set is dead wood.

Players include pedal-steel king Greg Leisz, multi-instrumentalist Etzioni, Benmont Tench on the title track, and Murry Hammond from the band Old '97s (who's also De Lisle's husband). But the real star is De Lisle, and she inhabits every tune.

Sonically, this sounds like a fine, well-organized analog recording, cleanly mixed and mastered, with minimal artificiality. With a voice like De Lisle's, there's no need to drown it in processing. Crank it up and you'll be rewarded with wide dynamics, low-level delicacy, and lots of air and space. Of course, the vinyl is recommended, but the CD is pretty good, too. Highly recommended, with confidence.