Inexplicable. All these years, how did I never hear about Amy Rigby before now? She moved to New York City about the same time I did -- 1979 -- and was around all those same years, playing in bands like The Shams and the Last Roundup before going solo in 1996 (after divorcing her drummer husband) with the exquisitely titled album Diary of a Mod Housewife, an album that sounds scarily like my life. Of course, all those years she was hanging downtown with the cool punk music people while I was in Midtown with the not-so-cool publishing people -- and by 1996 I didn't even go south of 86th Street if I didn't have to. So it's safe to say that my paths and Amy Rigby's would very rarely have crossed in this great teeming metropolis. And as all the reviewers seem compelled to point out, she never got the exposure she deserved -- maybe because her ironic lyrics and country-tinged sound were too subtle for the punk world, and too punky for the Lilith Fair singer-songwriter girls. That Diary of a Mod Housewife is out-of-print by now; even the iTunes pickings are slim.
So how does she finally enter my consciousness? I start listening to Nick Lowe's old Stiff labelmate Wreckless Eric, am gobsmacked by how good he was, then discover that he's still performing and recording -- and has just released a new album with his new wife . . . Amy Rigby. The reviewers mention her like a name I should know, and I get to researching, and --
Eric and Amy's new album is intriguing, but it does sound more like Eric -- who's spent many years in the musical wilderness -- than like Amy's best work. Maybe it'll just take a few more listens for me to get into it. But I can safely say that Amy's earlier solo stuff has jumped straight to the head of my queue. It's like when I first discovered Jill Sobule or Kirsty MacColl -- like some sister had been reading my diary and writing it up in these great funny and absolutely true songs.
Surfing around, I've picked this one practically at random, from her 2003 album, Till the Wheels Fall Off. Strumming an acoustic guitar, she hits us right off with a real grabber of an image: "We've been circling each other like a couple planes at O'Hare / With nowhere to land." I love the wry curl of her voice, half talking, with just a little plangent country twang. You can almost hear her sigh as she notes, "And if we did, no place to go from there." That well-worn note of despair, that's no 17-year-old talking.
Next killer image, same verse: "And you're talking to me like you're handling the Dead Sea Scrolls" -- well, if you haven't faced that kind of clumsy male diffidence, more power to you, sister. She can barely restrain the eye-roll as she asks, "Do you think we're gonna figure this out before we both get old?" I mean, c'mon already!
In a master stroke of concise scene-setting, she slides into the bridge, "Tick tock they're closing for the night," and I can just see her, at that back table in the bar, sagging in weary frustration -- "I'm shell-shocked, giving up the fight." How many times has she gone through this rigamarole?
Rigby knows female desire, and she's not about to apologize for it, strutting into her twangy chorus. By now, she's lost the ladlylike acoustic and she's swinging into full roadhouse jangly electric guitar, with punchy loping drums, like the impatient tapping of her boot. "Come on, I need you to hold me," she urges him, drawing out the long o of "hold" with a little yelp. "What are you waiting for?" She has no time to waste or play fragile, you can tell, and she ruefully adds, "You can't break a heart that doesn't work no more / And I'm tired of trying like I did before." This is a woman with history -- what a novel concept! Frustrated, she moans, "I wanna lay down" -- another deft stroke, for laying down could be giving up, or it could be getting (at last!) into bed. Now there's songwriting for you.
"You can take off the kid gloves now, lose the finesse," she counsels him, knowingly, in the second verse. She's no ballbuster, but if he needs her to take control (and he clearly does), she will. "Yes, there's no secret technique in separating me from this dress." (Did I say she was funny or what?) Closing in on her evening's deal, she remarks, numbly surprised, "Something's moving in my chest" -- but no, "It's nothing, I just need some rest." She not about to get fooled into thinking that this bar hook-up is true love. Although it might turn out to be . . . well, you never know . . .