A stellar debut, but not the one you might expect
Lissie Maurus, the singer/songwriter who performs under her first name, owes much of her recent notoriety to her live covers of songs like Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance and Kid Cudi’s Pursuit of Happiness, which are as notable for their unexpectedly sublime execution as they are for being so removed from the folky milieu she seems to inhabit. She could easily get pegged as the big-voiced-white-girl-with-a-guitar-who-does-ironic-covers, but the songs are rendered with such obvious, kitsch-less affection that they complicate the whole idea of her.
Her basic artistic identity was shaped by her first two EPs, 2007’s largely-unnoticed Lissie and last year’s tremendous “Why You Runnin’.” The first four tracks were sweet, bare and klutzy, but apparently all she needed was a couple of years to scrap it out on the road and Band of Horses’ bassist Bill Reynolds (who produced the newer EP) to lay plenty of reverb into the mix. Years before, she’d collaborated with a couple of DJs on tracks that did relatively well in the house/electronica world (a Deadmau5 remix of her work with Los Angeles DJ Morgan Page, “The Longest Road,” was nominated for a Grammy), but with “Why You Runnin’,” Lissie emerged as an old-souled, cornsilk-haired daughter of Rock Island, Ill., all heartland-nostalgia and brooding, windswept sorrow. No wonder it seemed so deeply odd to hear her hollering “I’m a freak bitch, baby!” a la Stefani Germanotta, at live shows and online video sessions mere months later.
Though Lissie has amply proven her interest in music beyond the scope of whatever is considered “folk” these days, Catching a Tiger, her full-length debut, might startle any fans hoping she’d further deliver on the presumed promises of last year’s breakout. Three tracks carry over untouched from the EP, joining nine new songs she’s been playing live in recent months. On stage, they’re backed by a basic three-piece rock outfit, but here they’ve been spun (some by Reynolds, some by producer Jacquire King) into dazzling gems that break and cut the light. Guitars—mostly electric—fume and skitter all over a rag-bag of synthetic textures King seems to have emptied out on his studio floor. Lissie’s voice has quite often been described as “whiskeyed,” but on Tiger there’s more than a whiff of tequila in the air—yellowy-green shots knocked back fast followed by hazy mornings filled with nagging regrets. This could perhaps be considered “folk” in some generous sense of the word, but let’s not be afraid to call it what it really is: unbridled, unselfconscious, swirling, head-pounding pop.
“When I’m Alone,” the album’s second U.K. single, writhes with obsession and self-loathing and could likely be some kind of hit on either side of the pond or anywhere else that Sheryl Crow—a fellow Midwesterner who consistently delivers less excellent, vaguely twangy pop-rock odes to relational strife—has managed to chart in the last 10 years. (As a bonus, Lissie can actually sing her own songs live.) “Stranger” is a twinkling takedown of a dud suitor—a song that would make Lesley Gore proud—and “Cuckoo” steers the newer material out of boy-trouble territory with its giddy remembrances of growing up a square peg in small-town Illinois. “I fell in love with being defiant / In a pickup truck that roared like a lion,” she sings over lightly-charging guitars, sounding less like a rough-and-tumble troublemaker and more like the next beloved new artist we’ll soon have to get used to hearing on whatever radio stations are left in this world.
Even the twangier EP tracks take on a more polished sheen in their new context. On Why You Runnin’, the deeply haunted “Everywhere I Go” slipped into “Here Before,” a spooky (if meandering) ballad; here, it segues into the electronic squirm of “Worried About,” a manic romp through the pitfalls of distrust that slides into an organ-pumped groove before hunkering down under a spray of electric guitar. The springing fingerpicking and distant drumming of “Little Lovin’” underpin Lissie’s steady, gut-launched vocals, and like so many of her songs—old and new—it builds to a terrific crescendo, all the parts eventually blooming and throwing themselves into a clapping, hollering barnstomp before fading back down into a lonely knee-slap. It was the best song on the EP, and it’s the best song on Catching a Tiger—here, though, it stands among some surprisingly stiff competition.