Album Review: 'Runaway's Diary'

Amy LaVere sings in a sweet soprano, but her lyrics are anything but sweet. Robert Christgau reviews her new album, Runaway's Diary.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Memphis singer songwriter Amy LaVere specializes in lyrics that are more barbed than her sweet soprano prepares you for. Our music critic, Robert Christgau, thinks she's never gotten that balance quite as right as she has on her new album, "Runaway's Diary."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RABBIT")

AMY LAVERE: (Singing) Old man, I hear they call you rabbit...

ROBERT CHRISTGAU, BYLINE: Louisiana-born Amy LaVere gets a lot of things done. She's led a Detroit punk band, mastered the upright bass, played Wanda Jackson in "I Walk The Line." And in 2012, began anchoring an interracial folk group called The Wondering in Memphis. Solo, she's always sheathed her capabilities in a sweet, tiny soprano. Betty Boop with a drawl, almost. Trick is, the lyrics don't match the sound. The lead track in LaVere's 2007 album goes, killing him didn't make the love go away. And her new album is pretty dark, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG SISTER")

LAVERE: (Singing) Big sister gets her first steps. Big sister learns to run. Big sister gets to daddy's knee before me. Big sister's no fun. And I'm just playing that she's played out. And learning things that she's known about. One step behind. One step too slow. I can't keep up. She won't wait up. She's daddy's girl. And I was the one who should've been daddy's son...

CHRISTGAU: The autobiographical image of the girl slated to be daddy's son is the kind of disconnect that leaves Amy LaVere's music so beguilingly off-kilter. The next track on "Runaway's Diary" expands on that image. It's called "Self-made Orphan."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SELF-MADE ORPHAN")

LAVERE: (Singing) Self-made orphan doesn't want to leave love 'cause I've only known the condition will come. It hurts too much and it isn't enough and I run at the very first sign. I found happiness in things lying around. Bottle caps, colored grass and little lost toys...

CHRISTGAU: "Runaway's Diary" doesn't always justify its title. But the final track makes the most of the idea that LaVere is a prodigal daughter, who was supposed to be a son.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL BE HOME SOON")

LAVERE: (Singing) I'll be home soon. Where's the trumpet? Where's the crowd? Where are you, love? Did you wait? Well, it's a long road, but I know it's a dead-end. And it'll stop when I decide to start over again.

CHRISTGAU: What I love most about Amy LaVere is the way she undermines the male chauvinist notion that a strong woman is one who can shout or growl or put her sexuality so out front a fellow can be sure it's there. She has some to prove, which always makes music stronger. But she does so on her own terms, even when she dares to mix in a John Lennon cover. LaVere may sound like a wisp of a thing, but she's got the intestinal fortitude to hold her own with the big boys.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW?")

LAVERE: (Singing) How can I go forward when I don't know which way I'm facing?

SIEGEL: The album, by Amy LaVere, is "Runaway's Diary." Our reviewer is Robert Christgau.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW?")

LAVERE: (Singing) How can I go forward when I don't know which way to turn? How can I go forward if there's something I'm not sure of? Oh, no. Oh, no.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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