The singer-songwriter simply known as Lissie is geographically challenged in more ways than one. First off, though she’s lived in Illinois for more years than she hasn’t, Lissie no longer calls the state home. Shortly after she was expelled from high school several years back, she took off for the West Coast, eventually settling in California but with a brief detour in Colorado to do some college there for a couple years. When discussing Lissie, many writers either say she’s an Illinois girl while others will call her a Californian. Where she prefers to be from officially is up to her. Secondly, despite writing songs in the tradition of great American songwriters and incorporating elements of folk, blues and country into her songs, Lissie has yet to make it big in the U.S. Instead, she’s blown up huge in Europe, in particular England, and that’s just a tad fascinating. Here in America, Lissie is just another struggling girl with a guitar, though she was one of the opening acts for Lenny Kravitz when he toured the country in 2008. Lissie’s music has also been used in a number of television shows including “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy”. Whether you know it or not, chances are you’ve heard at least one of her songs in one capacity or another. Now it just so happens that Lissie’s debut album “Catching a Tiger” was released in the UK very recently, and before the momentum catches up on this side of the pond, here’s a review for you.
Lissie’s sound is far from revolutionary. There are hundreds of other female singer-songwriters across the world doing something similar right this very second. They’ve got guitars and a bedroom and think that if they play enough coffee houses, perhaps a record label executive will walk in and they’ll get “discovered” one day. The thing about that dream and the challenge it provides is that most of these young women either don’t fully possess the talent to make it big, or the ones that do manage to find a way to screw up their big chance. Thankfully Lissie is none of these things, because you don’t rise up above your peers by being simply ordinary. What sets Lissie apart from the heaps of other ladies out there are a couple things. One of the first things you notice about her no matter what song you listen to is her voice. It’s smooth enough to be glass and has a wider range than the most unpopulated areas of Texas. There’s also a certain degree of emotion that shines through her voice, winning you over and convincing you that she truly does long for home or that some guy treated her poorly. To put it a different way, Lissie has a voice that projects and connects with the listener as much as it impresses. Because of her singing along with the occasional alt-country bent her songs can take, Lissie often evokes comparisons to Neko Case and Martha Wainright. That’s completely understandable, but on “Catching a Tiger” she displays more of a stylistic juggling act that pulls the easy references back and increases her accessibility to a mass audience. But the other big thing that separates Lissie from the pack is her songwriting. Her lyrics display a sharp maturity that certainly suggests they were written by somebody with a lot of life experience. Of course leaving high school, packing up your car and driving to California with all your possessions can get the wheels on the road to adulthood spinning pretty quickly. Really it’s admirable that Lissie moves beyond your typical female singer-songwriter cliche of failed relationships to tell stories about family, friends and the open road. And of course she does it all with smart wordplay that’s as wise as it is fascinating.
So as a debut album, “Catching a Tiger” turns out to be an excellent listening experience. Those who’ve been paying attention to Lissie in the past year or two have hopefully heard her 2009 EP “Why You Runnin'”, which served as a good precursor to what this new record is like. The three best tracks from that EP have been transplanted onto the twelve track album, and the nine brand new songs are almost all equally great. From the opening notes of the bouncy folk jaunt “Record Collector” through the country-tinged “Little Lovin'” five songs in, you get the feeling that there’s something fresh and exciting going on with this record. It’s front-loaded in the best sense of the word, and it’s both stylistically varied while cranking out memorable choruses that have a tendency to stay in your head longer than you could reasonably expect them to. The 60’s AM pop of “Stranger”, while still fun, somehow feels a little weaker than what’s come before it and it’s the start of a small string of tracks that feel relatively plain and homogenized. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to say that it veers into Sheryl Crow-like territory for a time and it’s a little distracting. The ballad “Everywhere I Go” recovers the album’s earlier momentum of great songs and brings a sharp emotional resonance that was missing in the couple tracks before it. “Look Away” is immensely beautiful in both the lyrical and compositional senses, adding bits of violin and piano to the guitars which really assists in conveying the dramatic nature of the words. Closing song “Oh Mississippi” feels like an old gospel song that’s been around for generations, almost in the vein of a “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. The piano matched with Lissie’s vocals sell that idea, along with the subject matter being perhaps America’s greatest river, the mighty Mississippi. It’s the perfect way to end a record so stylistically varied and emotionally bare.
By all accounts, Lissie has set herself up to be one of the next great women to achieve success with her music not only in England where she’s breaking out, but around the world. Once “Catching a Tiger” is finally released in the U.S. on August 17th, don’t be surprised if she starts to make a sizeable impact on these shores. Between the number of potential hits on the album and that remarkable voice, Lissie has a whole lot to offer those who are willing to listen. She may not be attempting anything revolutionary or different from the great women that have come before her, but she’s using her strengths to her advantage and it seems to be working out. Though such comparisons are a little one-sided, fans of Neko Case, Cat Power, Feist and Stevie Nicks among others should find Lissie right up their alleys. And even if you don’t like them, maybe you’ll like Lissie anyways. There’s only one way to find out, and “Catching a Tiger” is a great introduction to a woman who will hopefully be on all of our radars for many more years to come.