Ask for Angels
That bewitching combination of vulnerability and sheer rock energy - think PJ Harvey, Jeff Buckley, or even Emily Dickinson - comes easily for singer-songwriter Deb Montgomery. It's likely that Paul Simon guitarist Mark Stewart had exactly that in mind when he said he called her voice, 'both powerful and fragile,' and insisted that Montgomery, 'makes you want to hear every word she has to say.' Montgomery has grown accustomed to dwelling in life's in-between spaces: she's a Canadian who hangs out a lot in New York, a rocker who plays acoustic guitar, and a religious vagabond. Ultimately, she's an artist who is only at home when she finds moments of enlightenment on her way from place to place, and her music springs from that transcendental worldview. Ask for Angels, her first full-length record since 1997's Fear, is full of songs that will surprise people with their force and longevity. Montgomery uses her voice with a freedom that few singers ever attain: she whispers, growls, winks, and grinds, sometimes all within the course of a song, and fans of her live music will pleased with this recording. Her achingly beautiful vocals and lyrics have finally been matched with the right production. After years of amazing live performances, and a long search for the perfect producer, Montgomery wisely decided to trust her own vision and ears. She hand-picked a personal all-star roster of musicians to help her realize the record, including bassist John Abbey (John Cale, David Poe), who she also tapped to co-produce. Ask for Angels also features drummer Sim Cain (Black Flag, Henry Rollins), guitarist Mark Stewart (Paul Simon, Bang on a Can), keyboardist Rob Schwimmer (Laurie Anderson), cellist Julia Kent (Sheryl Crow, Rufus Wainwright, Anthony and the Johnsons, Rasputina), and Konrad Meissner (The Silos, Mary Lou Lord, Don Piper, Graham Parker). Unlike many self-produced albums, Montgomery didn't choose the DIY path for lack of suitors willing to accompany her on her latest journey. She's been courted every since the film-like feel to her music prompted Virgin Record's in 1997 to pick up her song 'The Tale' (along with tracks from Ani DiFranco, Jane Siberry and Holly Cole) for the soundtrack album to the award-winning movie The Hanging Garden. After hearing Montgomery at a show in New Orleans, producer Ethan Allan (Kristen Hersch, Throwing Muses, Luscious Jackson, Nancy Griffith) invited Deb to fly back down to his own studio to produce a demo. Just after producer and writer/co-writer Kevin Bowe (Lucinda Williams, Etta James, Kenny Wayne Shepperd) produced a demo with Montgomery in Minneapolis, Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls called her to encourage her songwriting and to discuss her artistic direction and recording plans. Listeners will be her primary partner as she returns to focusing on her live shows- she's poised on the edge of finding a larger audience. That's encouraging news not only for her, but for the direction of contemporary music-and people-in general. It might be continued post-9/11 malaise, or just signs of irony losing it's sway, but audiences at Montgomery's regular shows at The Living Room and CBGB's Gallery in New York City always seem ready for a little more of the honesty and grace that she offers up to them. Montgomery is fiercely spiritual, and it's made her unafraid to write lyrics like, 'This little ship/sinking seems to be./We've tried so hard, Lord/ but she's taking on the Sea./Will you come in?/You'll find the place that's taking water in/And then we will be free to Sail the Sea.' and then to sing them to normally cynical audiences in some of New York's hippest venues. Artists are natural risk takers, but what's remarkable has been the reaction: unabashed hunger for more of this kind of music. The audience's own risk in giving into that visceral need has had a great reward. Montgomery doesn't just sing the words they've been craving, but takes them with her through terror, anger, redemption, and finally to moments of pure beauty and tranquility. It's been one of Montgomery's artistic and personal goals to show people that light and love are on the other side of life's inevitable darkness and pain, and to not be afraid of either. It's a testament to her success at achieving that end that people have called her shows everything from therapy to church, specially suited to those people who would never deign to attend either. Montgomery's ultimately positive message, whether it's growled or whispered, shouted or sung, is that the voyage won't be without storms-but sunrise can be beautiful.