Making Sparks

About five years ago, I bought an album called “If You Were For Me” by Rose Cousins, on the basis of her performance on a CBC Radio 1 show I half-listened to while recovering from a night shift. It didn’t immediately gel with me — though I did love the title track right off the bat — but over the space of the next six months I realized I was listening to it more and more, and caught myself humming bits and pieces of it to myself. When we got married, I had a conversation with the guy we’d hired to do our music, in which he asked what kind of stuff we liked, and it was very difficult for me to not blurt out “Rose Cousins.”

“If You Were For Me” has since become one of my very favorite albums, right up there with Edie Carey’s “Another Kind of Fire,” Gaslight Anthem’s “The ’59 Sound,” and, of course, Sarah McLachlan’s “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy.” I wrote a lengthy mash note to “Another Kind of Fire” back in 2008, where I talked a bit about Rose and the timelessness of her music. Re-reading it today, I’m not sure I did it justice.

This is all preamble to the real reason I’m writing this post: Rose Cousins has a new album out. And it is deeply, deeply good. If you’ve liked her previous stuff, you’ll like this new record a lot more. Listening through it the first time, this morning, I realized that it was pretty much exactly what I had been hoping for out of a new Rose Cousins album: you can clearly see how her work has evolved over the years, and how it has become deeper, more textured, more serious. Which isn’t to denigrate either “If You Were For Me” or “The Send Off” — they’re both excellent albums in their own right. But “We Have Made A Spark” is better. Much, much better.

Thematically, this is a dark album; there are recurrent images of loneliness, isolation, and unhappy relationships. Several tracks (“Go First,” “This Light,” “One Way,” “The Shell”) make for outstanding Sad Bastard music, but it isn’t just the same kind of complaint over and over again. Much like Sarah Harmer’s “Basement Apartment” captured a very specific kind of angst about mid-to-late-20s existence, Rose’s lyrics on some of these tracks are about a particular place and time in one’s life, the sort of desperation and sorrow that comes with a failing relationship, the desire to escape for something better and yet lacking the strength to do so:

I want you to go first
It’s only getting worse
Either way it’s gonna hurt
But I want you to go first
I need you to leave There’s no room to breathe
I need you to leave
I could hold you all night
And it wouldn’t make it right
I have held you all day
It doesn’t go away
And it’s when I hold you close
That’s when it hurts the most

The lyrics capture something meaningful, but the richness of the music (there’s a string quintet that plays through here) is something else entirely. This album was recorded and produced by a group of musicians in Boston, and the competence on display here is shocking. Without drawing too many comparisons to Sarah Harmer here, I was reminded of how “Oh Little Fire” was almost a virtuoso display of a group of musicians who were very good at what they do and enjoy their work immensely — It’s the same sort of thing here. Rose has very clearly found a great bunch of collaborators. Go through the list of people who worked on the album, and names start to pop out: Edie Carey’s here; so is Charlie Rose, Rose Polenzani, and Jennifer Kimball. The collaboration is impressive, but to my mind one of the strongest tracks, “This Light,” is just Rose Cousins and a piano, a format that allows her talent to shine. (I confess that when I heard about the concept behind this album, I was a bit paranoid that the essential “Rose-ness” would be diluted, but while there are a good number of people involved in making this record, it is unquestionably Rose Cousins. Paranoia unfounded.)

There are also a few bonuses: a very nifty cover of Springsteen’s “If I Should Fall Behind,” and two do-overs of tracks from “The Send Off”: “All The Time It Takes to Wait” and “White Daisies.” I’m not a big fan of the latter, but the former is done much more in the style that she has apparently been performing the song live — see this version with Royal Wood as an example — and it is so much better than the original. I admit that the live version has ruined other album versions of that song more or less forever, so it’s nice that “We Have Made A Spark” has something close.

It’s a great album. Go run out and buy a copy, ok?