Deborah Bartley has long been one of Seattle's revered singer/songwriters… at least to a small demographic of its population. Despite three critically-lauded records released on her homespun "Wandering Eye" label, it's no secret that being a female songwriter with an acoustic guitar brings with it certain "baggage:" stereotypes, preconceptions, and labeling, which can make it damn impossible grow an audience much larger than the smallest of venues. Not to say that Bartley doesn't have her causes and opinions — just pay attention to her poetically concise lyrics — but one gets the feeling that Deborah has been pining for an opportunity to take her art, and with it her audience, to the next level. Enter Chris Pugh and Andy Sheen.
You may vaguely recall Pugh and Sheen from their former band Swallow, not to be confused with the sublime British shoegazer band by the same name. Pugh and Sheen's Swallow released two records on Sub Pop prior to the "Grunge explosion" (Okay, at least some of us still recall the days of Tad, U-Men, and Skin Yard — before Everett True fucked it all up). Let's bring this together: Bartley, Pugh and Sheen have been playing live shows together over the course of the past five years. Earlier this year they waltzed into a studio and recorded 14 new songs over the course of two days. Whether or not this new material was originally intended to be used for the next Deborah Bartley release is not clear, but what is clear is the welcome change in direction that resulted.
Bartley has always had a strong grasp of words and melody, this cannot be denied, and what is found on Sunmay's debut record is her strongest material to date — quite possibly the catapult to a larger audience. Granted, while a few of the tracks on You Can Make Beautiful Things may be a bit more "conventional" than others, the dynamic production style of Colm Meek has brought out the best in each song, adding emphasis, subtlety, nuances and dynamics where it had been missing from Bartley's prior efforts. Two songs which stand above the rest, causing repeated plays in my stereo, are "Resurfacing" and "Sucker Punch," both of which could easily become top singles in the AAA charts. Truth be told, I haven't heard such powerful numbers as these two since the glory days of Tori Amos and Sinead O'Connor. Yes, they are that good, and alone make this record worth the purchase. The rest of the album, while having plenty of strong and charming moments (a clear-voiced and graceful cover of The Cure's "Let's Go To Bed," for example), doesn't hold a candle to these two songs.
Okay, so first you tell me that this is her strongest material to date, and possibly the record to really launch her, and then you turn around in the same sentence and tell me that there are three or four shining moments on this otherwise conventional record? So, which is it…?
Both. It's true. While I am completely smitten by a handful of songs, and a smidge underwhelmed by the remainder, I nonetheless stand by my word that Deborah Bartley has found a vehicle in Sunmay that, if continued to be explored and stretched, will undoubtedly yield amazing results for her. You just wait.