It’s not all that hard to find a musician willing and able to offer a guided tour of life’s dark clouds - but making the acquaintance of someone able to hone in on the silver lining, well, that’s an altogether rarer occurrence It’s an experience to savor. Catie Curtis’ ability to lift up the listener radiates from virtually every groove of her appropriately-titled ninth studio album, Sweet Life.
“I probably wouldn’t have written a record this positive if things were going great in the world and we had peace and prosperity,” the singer-songwriter explains. “There are lots of reasons to be unhappy or anxious at this time, and I think the album is as much about resilience as anything. In order to stay sane and keep moving forward you have to be able to look at all the bad news around you and still see the beauty that is there alongside the trouble.”
Sweet Life abounds with that positive energy - although Curtis deftly stays clear of sentimentality. Anything but sticky sweet, this album is like a mature embrace, from the warm and winsome coming-of-age allegory “Are You Ready to Fly?” to the languid, sepia-toned “What You Can’t Believe”, on which she disperses the doubts that gather, as the lyric puts it, “under darkening clouds.” That song, like many of the disc’s dozen offerings, reaches out to listeners with a welcoming blend of burnished keyboards and slide guitar - a departure from Curtis’s most recent recordings, which were more spare.
“We’re at this juncture where a lot of folks are working on their records in home studios and making them sound craftily small, but I really wanted to go in the other direction toward a big, warm, friendly sound,” Curtis says of her first Nashville-bred recording. The songs are meant to be open and confident, and I don’t know that they’d have carried as well if they were done stripped down and bare bones.”
They’re anything but stripped down. Backed by an array of Music City vets, including longtime Bonnie Raitt collaborator George Marinelli and Alison Prestwood, who’s accompanied such artists as Shawn Colvin, Rodney Crowell and Peter Frampton, Curtis stretches out as broadly as at anytime in her recording career. That’s evident in the playfulness of the ‘30s-styled barroom plaint “Lovely” as well as in the ‘70s soul groove of “For Now”, which exudes Muscle Shoals sultriness.
As is her wont, Curtis also slips a surprising cover into the mix on Sweet Life – this time an affirming rendition of “Soul Meets Body” by kindred alternative-rock spirits Death Cab for Cutie, a song she says she was drawn to because “I was really taken by the way these young guys are able to talk about wanting to live on a spiritual plane, which is really different than a lot of the music of the ‘90s which was really critical and jaded and ranting.”
There’s never been anything remotely jaded about Catie Curtis. From the first time she picked up a guitar - an instrument given to her gratis by a neighbor who asked only that she promise to learn to play it - the native of rural southern Maine has used music as a sort of sonic superglue to bring people together. She brought that to the fore on her charming 1995 debut Truth From Lies, a disc on which she tangled with heartache and - on the affably goofy “Slave to my Belly” - had a full-on dialogue with that body part, and ramped it up further on her 1997 follow-up, which was named Album of the Year at the Gay and Lesbian American Music Awards.
With her intoxicating brand of folk pop music, smart and enduring lyrics and engaging personality, Curtis has created a dedicated following that has grown steadily over the course of her career. With ten albums and recognition that includes a 2006 International Songwriting Competition Grand Prize, Curtis has proven that she’s the real deal - a musician with the kind of raw talent and artistic maturity that makes her a force to be reckoned with, albeit a sweet force.
Stretch Limousine on Fire (2011) is a bold statement of beauty yet simultaneously grittier - a bit more raw - than her past work. Produced by Lorne Entress (Lori McKenna, Ronnie Earl, Mark Erelli, Mighty Sam McLain) and recorded and mixed primarily in Los Angeles by noted engineer Ryan Freeland (Ray LaMontangue, Ingrid Michaelson, The Weepies), the album features guest vocalists Lisa Loeb and Mary Chapin Carpenter along with musicians Jay Bellerose (Drums), Jennifer Condos and Jesse Williams (Bass), Thomas Juliano (electric guitar), Duke Levine (Lap Steel and guitar), David Limina (Organ) and Glenn Patscha and Julie Wolf (keyboards). Standout tracks include the title cut, “Shadowbird,” “Highway del Sol” and “River Wide.” Matthew Curry, a Grammy-nominated artist/designer best known for his work with Thievery Corporation, illustrated the cover and designed the CD artwork.