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Under Streetlight Glow
Heidi Spencer and The Rare Birds Under Streetlight Glow

Released 14 January 2011
Producer Bill Curtis
Label Bella Union
Length 37:59
Genre Alternative
Website www.heidispencerandtherarebirds.com
62

Milwaukee native Heidi Spencer’s Under Street Light Glow is her third album and her first album for the excellent Bella Union label, home to Beach House, Midlake, Fleet Foxes, as well as various other illustrious label mates. This is also the first album that her backing band, The Rare Birds, share billing. The band has been with her since her debut, but that and her sophomore release were simply “Heidi Spencer” albums. It’s clear after a few moments why this decision was made; each band member and instrument plays an integral role, facilitating the wonderful texture and layers of the album, both driving and trailing her beautiful earthy voice where needed.

There is sweetness in the voice that reminds me of our own Lisa Hannigan, albeit more wounded and hungry sounding. There is a debt to female folk and country singers also, hidden way back in her voice, where you can hear echoes of Dolly Parton or Alison Krauss, but it is the jazzy quality and her ability to twist and turn her voice, extending it like a musical instrument that appears to the forefront, conjuring a reverie of smoky bars or streetscapes. This is the sound of someone who has roamed far and wide, now finally finding herself back in the city.

Opener 'Alibi' is a tale of a forbidden tryst, kicking off with a guitar strum and a click, the band a fitting accompaniment to her words, perfectly punctuating the pauses and dragging you into her revelation. "No one needs to know, we laid around all day...Let’s make up a good alibi"; she doesn’t seem guilty, and if her "eyes don’t lie", neither do the lyrics or the sincere delivery– the song’s protagonist, be it her or not, portrays no real guilt for this illicit affair and the atmosphere of the song is the better for it. There are too many odes of regret, it seems to say.

The late night atmosphere persists throughout, both in style and in theme, the music a soundtrack to the small hours in a city, framing lyrics that deal with secrets and the thrill of losing yourself in a post-midnight world. This is most notable on title track, 'Under Street Light Glow', 'Red Sky', and closer 'Whiskey', some of the album’s highlights.

For the most part the quality is maintained, but things being maintained is probably the album’s biggest downfall too: there is no real variation in style and the same tone is insistent throughout. "You get so used to something, you just can’t quit", she sings on another favourite, 'Hibernation'. There are no bad tracks as such, just some that lull and outstay their welcome a little. She attests to want to achieve a stripped down sound, and while it is important to let the songs breathe without being buried under unwanted instrumentation, you can’t help feel that the album could have achieved a more three-dimensional quality from a little more instrumental experimentation.

The result is the album not having as much staying power as it could have; the first few listens were great, but I grew tired of it a little too quickly. Ultimately Heidi’s husky voice and honest lyrics win you over, but because of the one perpetual tone, this is an album best kept for late at night, for the weary mind in need of empathy and rest.

- Ray Burke