My Shirt Looks Good on You by Catie Curtis '87 (Rykodisc $16.97).
Catie Curtis has always been something of a pop musician in folksinger's clothing. Sure, she's got the requisite acoustic guitar and a batch of sensitive, literate ballads, and she has been part of the folk scene around Boston and beyond since the early 1990s. But a quick spin of any of her CDs reveals a songwriting sensibility closer to Motown or urbane pop/rock Ơ la Aimee Mann than to typical coffeehouse fare. With a penchant for huge, happy hooks and supple grooves, Curtis writes the kind of songs that in a better world you would hear on your car radio on the way to work and find yourself humming all day.
These qualities are abundantly clear on her irresistible new CD, My Shirt Looks Good on You. Often singer-songwriters who shine in solo performance sound awkward and tentative when their music is gussied up with "radio-ready" production - like good-looking kids at the prom in cheesy rented formalwear. Not so with Curtis, who can hold her own in a guitar-and-voice confessional but really comes alive in front of a rhythm section. The supporting cast on My Shirt Looks Good on You, anchored by her longtime sidekick Jimmy Ryan on electric mandolin and Morphine's Billy Conway on drums, creates folk-rock and R&B grooves similar to those on her last release, A Crash Course in Roses, but the new CD marks her most assured and completely integrated band work to date.
Among the CD's highlights are two paeans to love and lust. In the title track, Curtis delivers a morning-after invitation to stay for breakfast, with a revved-up chorus about how "love and happiness ruined my ambition." And in the ridiculously catchy "Kiss That Counted," when she says to a would-be lover, "If I don't kiss you now/ I will never sleep again," you can feel her swoon from a mile away. In moments like this, Curtis's day-in-the-life language and unvarnished singing deliver an emotional realism that pop music, despite its relentless come-ons and sexual swaggering, rarely achieves.
A few songs later, in "Elizabeth," Curtis delivers her first-ever love song directed explicitly at a woman rather than the noncommittal you, a personal milestone that musically feels entirely natural and unselfconscious. But not everything here is champagne and roses. "Walk Along the Highway" describes the plight of a pregnant and abused wife, for instance, while "Love Takes the Best of You" movingly speaks to an adopted Cambodian girl about her past. Curtis was a social worker before becoming a full-time musician, and she has a good ear for street-level stories. Generally, though, her lyrics take a backseat to her melodies, so a song like "Sugar Cane," an environmental outcry about the burning of sugarcane fields in Louisiana, feels a bit out of character.
And to my ear, none of these message-minded songs can compete with the blissed-out sounds of "My Shirt Looks Good on You." "Who's the president?/ I don't care," she sings over a band crescendo. "Who's the monkey, who's the mayor/ What's the story/ What's the news/ What's the difference/ All I want is you." At least while listening to this rapturous track, you won't care either.
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers (www.jeffreypepperrodgers.com) is the author of Rock Troubadours and the Beginning Guitarist's Handbook.