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(Older reviews archived alphabetically by artist name.)

  Listen Hard  
  Melissa Ferrick  
  Right on Records  
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I don't know Melissa Ferrick. I have never seen her play live, never spoken to any member of her fan club (assuming she has one), never exchanged email with her producer. In fact, until I stumbled across Listen Hard, by the most sheer of accidents, I had never so much as heard of Melissa Ferrick, much less heard her music. I am not familiar with the artist in any way whatsoever, and I certainly have no idea what sorts of thoughts run around her head in her private time. But with that said, I must offer an opening by way of apology to here.

Dear Ms. Ferrick,

I am sorry if the following review of your latest album, Listen Hard, is clichéd or hackneyed. I apologize if I make comparisons that have been made so often that you abhor critics who continue to make them. I apologize if I use theoretical 'musical genres' to categorize your music that you now (or have always) taken offense to. I do not intend to insult, degrade or generalize your music, it's just that I don't really listen to this style of music often enough to not write somewhat clichéd explanations. But with that said, I am so impressed by the overall sound of your album that I really want to write a review of it. It is, at this point, one of the five best listens I've experienced this year, so I hope you will forgive me for the retreads of things you've likely heard all too often before in exchange for what meager positive press I can offer in return.

Okay, now with that out of the way I will present you, the reader, with a few words I'm virtually certain the artist has read a few thousand times before.

Melissa Ferrick plays a form of electric folk guitar music most often associated with the likes of Melissa Etheridge, Bonnie Raitt or Michelle Malone (with whom she is playing The Variety Playhouse soon.) Her songs, both in content, style, and form, strongly resemble the work of early Indigo Girls (back when they were really good rather than really famous), only with a much stronger tendency to rock. Her lyrics are generally of the introspective, intensely personal bent that tends to drive the singer-songwriter style. Think Elliot Smith, only female. And better.

There, now the only likely comparison that I've omitted is Ani DiFranco, who also plays the same kind of music to the same kinds of audiences, but who I generally find to be more annoying than entertaining. You should have an idea of what you're likely to find on Listen Hard at this point. So now let me qualify all of those comparisons.

Melissa Ferrick, if this album is any reasonable window into her overall catalogue, is better than any of those artists. She rocks harder than either of the established, famous artists mentioned (though a younger Etheridge might give her a run for her money in that regard), and she writes better, more complete and fulfilling songs than any of them. Only early era Indigo Girls (Closer to Fine, Galileo era) match the material on Listen Hard for quality.

Album-opener Burn This Guitar, an anthem of modern rock radio if it were on a major label release, sets a take-no-prisoners aura of greatness from the outset. Shatter Me follows, re-visiting the always-popular singer-songwriter motif of "I might love you, so fuck off" but managing not to retread it, instead maintaining the air of originality and relevance. The track sequence continues in this vein, never surprising the listener with stylistic or formal quirkiness but always entertaining and satisfying with the familiar tropes of the folk-rock crowd. Selfish Side is itself a standout track, but both it and the opener pale in comparison to power and magnificence of Marie in the Middle, a hard played catharsis/dirge about a friend of the artist who recently died and the card her (the subject, not the artist) son wrote for her to say goodbye. It is a truly wonderful and powerful song, one that in and of itself redeems the entire singer-songwriter medium for a year or so, in my eyes at least.

My problem, as it were, with folk-rock and singer-songwriters in general, has always hinged on the notion that this person singing/playing always seems so convinced that their pain is different, that their heartache is special, that their insight is unique. This is why I generally avoid the genre altogether. But Listen Hard manages to cross the self-reflexive barrier, exchanging self-importance for a universality of human emotion, exiting the lands of self-obsessed extroverts with guitars and entering the realm of sublime musical statements.

I am extremely impressed, and I strongly suggest that, if you have any interest whatsoever in folksy, guitar oriented artists that you make a point of picking Ferrick's latest up. (I have been able to find it at several online e-tailers, in case you're into the internet ordering thing.)

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