Sugar Hill Records
4½ stars (out of 5)
By Aaron Keith Harris
Liz Longley begins her self-titled Sugar Hill Records debut with “Outta My Head,” a perfect slice of late 1990s Lillith Faire-style pop that has her remembering the good things about an old flame—the road trips to concerts, the exchange of mixtapes, and “the John Martyn record that we spun till it was dead.”
Memory usually tells us exactly what we want to hear about ourselves, suppressing the messy bits and turning the mundane into nostalgia—it’s easy to build a hit song merely by making lists of things from the years when your target audience felt like their lives were still ahead of them.
Good songwriters deal with the mess head-on, and their insight lets you make your own nostalgia about the stuff that’s unique to you.
Longley has had me feeling like that as I’ve played this record over and over the last several weeks. Something about “Outta My Head” made me think of Duncan Sheik’s “Barely Breathing,” which made me remember how I used to feel whenever I would hear it, which made me start thinking a lot about that time in my life, which has lots of parallels to the things Longley must have been turning over in her head when she wrote “Outta My Head.” It’s that kind of interplay between artist and listener that makes music so much a part of our inner lives.
Though it’s Longley’s songwriting that makes this a great record, it’s her voice that most people notice first. Fans of modern country music will notice her voice is every bit as strong and of roughly the same type as the popular female singers of today; more discerning listeners will note that it’s clearly better than any chart-topper you’d care to name—and that Longley can actually sing, and in just about any style she cares to try. The 11 tracks on this record have a unified sound with lots of different influences—subtle ones—from pop and country music from the 1970s and each decade since.
All of this helps Longley put across an impressive cycle of songs about love and memory—the stab of excitement tinged with fear when we feel intense desire for the first time that’s so strong we keep chasing it (“Camaro”), the disbelief when someone is taking that feeling away from you (“This is Not the End”), the mix of shame and resolve when you take that feeling away from someone because they can’t come with you where you’re going (“Memphis”), the rush when you find someone who makes it all feel new and risky again (“Never Loved Another”), the feeling you get from that one person you know you shouldn’t keep coming back to (“Bad Habit,” which is also might be the best song ever written about cigarettes), and the renewed optimism that you may have actually found someone good for you (“You’ve Got that Way”).
A couple of songs included on this album don’t quite fit this theme, nor are they quite as good, but Longley ties everything together with a love song of incredible emotional intensity and simplicity. With the aptly titled “Simple Love,” she tells us how it feels to escape the cycle that has obsessed countless songwriters, offering hope to those who are still caught there.