Lissie - Catching a Tiger
On the cover of her debut album proper Catching a Tiger, Illinois lass Lissie resembles a tousled Kate Moss who chose the whiskey bottle over crack. The fact that she's a pouting blonde beaut certainly hasn't affected her chances at making it big, but Lissie has drawn attention from industry bigwigs and bloggers alike for something else entirely. That's her voice - on last year's EP Why You Runnin', listeners curious to hear this Midwestern chick whose first solo recording was being produced by Band of Horses' Bill Reynolds were met with a soulful husk spilling from their speakers. Fast forward six months and the release of her debut follows one of those career-making South by Southwest performances, tour spots with Ray Lamontagne and Joshua Radin, and a UK telly intro courtesy of Jools H. Produced by Jacquire King - the knob-twiddler behind the most recent albums from Kings of Leon, Cold War Kids and Norah Jones - the question is if Catching a Tiger will bag and tag it?
The clattering pots-and-pans percussion that greets the listener turns into atmospheric little opener Record Collector, a mid-tempo introduction to the voice we'll be hearing a lot more from this year. As with any guitar-based album from a female singer/songwriter, the comparisons are inevitable so I'll get them out of the way: Loosen the Knot sounds uncannily like The Globe Sessions-era Sheryl Crow, the utterly lovely Bully is reminiscent of coherent Cat Power (even if the opening chords bring to mind Flight of the Conchords' Rhys Darby solo number Leggy Blonde) and then, of course, there's Stevie Nicks. The name has haunted almost every interview and review, online and off, and can be explained by the canny choice in lead singles. When I'm Alone and In Sleep are two rather catchy numbers that don't veer too far from the classic rock mould yet still shine thanks to a committed and earthy vocal (a la Nicks) and choruses that Mick Fleetwood would be happy to have his name attached to; the latter song even features a magnificent guitar-driven climax for all those drivetime fans out there.
Despite the touchstones though, Lissie's voice is never Nicks-lite and, to her credit, she never seems to be purposefully mimicking anyone even when similarities creep in. Her shining moment is slowie Everywhere I Go, a song with a denouement as subtle as any Celine Dion power ballad, but it's also a terrifically heartfelt and executed torch song that highlights the extraordinary vocal talent Lissie possesses; the hushed way she implores us to 'Tell me how's the way to go' in no way prepares the listener for the soaring heights of the song's grand finale. Expect it to be pummelled to death by every glossy US TV show going.
Surrounding this grand centrepiece, there are enough interesting choices - and visible fingerprints from producer King - to keep things whipping along at a quick pace: see the slight Eastern tinge of the otherwise middling Look Away, the delightfully retro stylings of Stranger, and the countryfied Little Lovin', which builds into a galloping rag-tag blues number in its final two minutes. Like most awaited debuts though, missteps are to be expected. Despite swinging bass and a spunky vocal, Worried About doesn't hit the spot, while your opinion on Cuckoo will depend on your predilection for AM pop-rock - it will either be your summer singalong anthem or just too shiny happy for you to bear. As if to confirm the somewhat reductive view that she's nowt more than a traditional piano-bar blues singer, Lissie even closes the album with southern gospel hymn Oh Mississippi - co-written by Ed Harcourt - that thankfully features a blistering vocal, as it explores no other new musical territory.
So, was the hype machine justified? There are problems with Catching a Tiger: it's not entirely filler-free, it's not taking any huge musical risks, and it's one of those that you just know will be so much better in a live setting. That said, this is a solid foundation for things to come and, when the star player is this lady's very agreeable voice, those things are surely a-comin'.