One place I go looking for ideas for this column is the several boxes of CDs which have survived recent downsizing efforts in our house and are now residing — only on a temporary lease! — under the bed. I often find a long-unloved album, spin it, then go exploring for new music by the same artist. The old and the new, the fresh and the classic, the then and the now.
One such recently excavated album is L. A. Mitchell’s Live at the Matterhorn from 2008. Mitchell is an accomplished pianist, songwriter and singer who has recorded independently under her own name and has also recorded or performed over the years with a range of different acts, including Dave Dobbyn, Fly My Pretties and the Dukes.
“[Music] has always been my sanctuary, my paradise, my passion, my itch, my frustration, my desire, and the unfulfilled never-tobe-finished goal,” Mitchell says in the record’s liner notes. Her music is a funky blend of soul, jazz and pop, led by her strong and expressive voice and backed up by a solid groove and lush vocals from backing musicians the Nativa Band.
The album takes in tracks from her previous album Debut and elsewhere, and a couple of covers, and displays an attractive honesty and intimacy in the lyrics and music that is heartfelt and humble.
“Conceptualise my development / Two pages of the irrelevant / The argument’s still inside of it / . . . How much of me is really real?” she asks on opening track It’s Music To. This sets a tone for the album, suggesting that there are going to be edges to the ideas contained within. “Are these thoughts of love or thoughts of lust or thoughts to trust?” Mitchell sings on Blessed Be, an early highlight. She introduces it with “a bit of gratitude” and then starts to sing, her voice swooping alone over a spare drum line for several bars before being joined by keyboard and backing vocals. Her voice in the live setting, with a rasp here and there, a catch now and then, is beautifully unadorned by overdubs or studio trickery. This gives heft to lines that might look like clichés on the page: “Never say never, never say die / Always look your friends in the eye” and “Blessed be the path I follow”.
Never Wear White . . . swings like an oldtime gospel tune as it continues the walking theme: “I wonder: Am I learning the real lessons / . . . am I following the path with faith and grace?”
There’s more than a hint of religion on the record: There’s this talk of faith and grace, there’s mentions of angels and demons, there are the titles Blessed Be and Be Free and Love Will Rain Down; not an explicit faith in God but certainly a thoughtful, joyful and humane outlook on life, one that takes in the classic ideas of beauty, truth and goodness.
Love Will Rain Down is a standout track. It bubbles from the start with a restrained joy, held in check by Mitchell’s Rhodes organ and small guitar flourishes. A love song that expresses the joy of love without the obsession found in many pop songs, it seems to suggest that the love between the two in the song is not created by them but rather that they are tapping into something bigger than themselves, that together they’ll experience love “raining down” on them. “Every time I see your face staring back in wonder /. . . I see the world through glasses with rosy hues / And I know that love will rain down on you.”
Many of the songs on Live at the Matterhorn clock in at more than five minutes (few outstay their welcome) but Mitchell has laid down a couple of short and sweet tracks — new to me — since that disc. Apple Heart in 2012 moves away from the soul/jazz sound of the live album to something poppier, and Lose the Game in 2013 goes even further in a two-and-a-half minute tennismetaphor love song complete with whistled melody line. Since then Mitchell has “been making and raising a baby” as her Facebook page puts it, and has now returned to music with a couple of gorgeous tracks of stripped-back folk with her husband Matt Barus, under the moniker Terrible Sons. A full-length album is on the way.
“I’ve made this for those who seek the new, who search for the things that inspire them, who possess a desire to be affected by music,” said Mitchell of the Matterhorn album. Give it a whirl.