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  Amy Ray  
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Back in 1990 (eons ago in rock music terms), a relatively unknown and unheralded Atlanta band named The Ellen James Society released their debut album on Amy Ray's Daemon Records. The last song on Reluctantly We is a nearly 8 minute epic called God in Heaven; more importantly, about halfway through the song, another voice begins to back the Janis Joplin-esque vocals of Chris McGuire. That voice belongs to Amy Ray.

When I first heard that song, I was stunned. Who knew that Amy Ray, half of the acoustic Indigo Girls, could rock out like that? Who knew that her voice was so well suited to belt out Southern blues rock? I remember thinking that this was a side of her that I really wanted to hear more of. But as the years went by, and the Indigo Girls sounded much the same, I forgot about that one moment. I also more or less forgot about Amy Ray, never really considering her except as the owner of Atlanta's Daemon Records.

Then she released Stag, her first solo album. Several friends told me how good it was and what a total surprise it as to hear such a rocky album. Unfortunately, I remember that song from the Ellen James Society, so the novelty of the music didn't strike me. Rather, I hear this album for what it is - a varied grab bag of music (some of it good, some of it o.k.) that allow Amy Ray to explore different songwriting and singing styles.

The variety seen on Stag can be attributed, I think, to the different bands and musicians she chose to accompany her. For instance, the songs where she's backed by the Butchies (a punk-y trio out of North Carolina) have a hard, although at times playful, edge. In contrast, the music where Ray plays the mandolin as sole instrument sounds almost like bluegrass. Furthermore, the song recorded with some members of The Rock*A*Teens sounds like an outtake from their first album (which was release on Daemon Records), full of reverb and lo-fi. However, none of the songs is inherently wedded to their respective musical styles. It's easy for me to imagine Lucystoners (recorded with the Butchies) with The Rock*A*Teens yelling in the background. Similarly, there isn't any real reason that Johnny Rottentail should have a bluegrass feel; it could easy be one of the blues-y rock number Ray recorded with other musicians. In many ways, it's like listening to an segment of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, (a TV improv show) with Ray singing rather generic lyrics in styles suggested by an audience somewhere. Furthermore, the genre changes influence the album's overall consistency. Except when the same band backs Ray in sequential tracks, the songs don't flow together well. Nothing really builds, and nothing really resolves. Stag feels more like a revue than a coherent vision.

This isn't to say that the album doesn't have its individual highlights. In general, the 5 songs recorded with the Butchies are by far the strongest. Lucystoners introduces an infectious sing-song chorus while Mtns of Glory showcases Ray's harsh vocals, which sound so right in the context of a good punk rock song. In contrast, Black Heart Today doesn't have strong enough lyrics or vocals to support the wall o' reverb epitomized by The Rock*A*Teens. And the song recorded with Joan Jett comes across as perfunctory hard rock tune, delivered without distinction.

In the end, I have a mixed reaction to Stag. This has the feel of a grab-bag, where the listener has to skip around and find what appeals to them. And I find it hard to believe that hard core Indigo Girls fans will enjoy the more rock moments; likewise, the mandolin and echo won't exactly thrill people who are more into the harder music. Still, I'm sure fans of Amy Ray herself will be intrigued by the range shown on the album, and will applaud this as an exploration of songs and material that isn't suitable for the Indigo Girls. And I suppose this album is really intended for them.

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