Amy Rigby is the class clown in the school of hard knocks. Since 1996, she's fizzed up her Crenshaw-styled neoclassical solo pop with such wonderful bubbles of Tracey Ullman spunk that she deserves to be a fixture in most alt-contemporary CD collections. Despite two solid albums, though, she hasn't quite secured such an esteemed position. That's due, in some part, to her plucky refusal to be what she's not--an everywoman. Not to say that Rigby isn't archetypal. You know her. She's the East Village equivalent of the hip Uptown Minneapolis chick next door with the dizzy grin, wistful wit, and Day-Glo inner life. And in 1996, before the Handicam invasion of every nook of our lives, her Diary of a Mod Housewife was a revelation, answering a lot of nosy questions none of us had any right to ask about what really does happen behind the frosted apartment windows in the not-so-happy-ever-after scenester marriage.
No, her name wasn't Luka, but the indomitable vet of New York bands Last Roundup and the Shams was certainly going through the kind of domestic heartache that's both more serious and more mundane than most acoustic, versifying women would ever cop to. Rigby was 35 years old, married to former dB's drummer Will Rigby, working a temp job, raising a daughter, writing music, having arguments, spending a lot of nights on the couch, and asking, "Is that all there is?" (And if it is, how exactly am I supposed to keep on dancing?) Her Diary could match Liz Phair's for sex talk, but it also gave the appropriate, irrational weight to particular regrets and crises of confidence. Like the humiliation of, say, not being able to convey to a cute, distracted yet infinitely kissable bookstore clerk that "Hey, I've got a band/I understand what life is for!" By the time her record hit the stands, she was single again.
Two years later, the similarly strong Middlescence (as in born-again adolescence) delivered more funny, pointillistic meditations on forty-pushing mom-hood like "Summer of My Wasted Youth." But it passed without the stunned critical ovations of the first. Maybe that's because her Hoboken post-punk-pop crowd and their cohort could only take so much wry exposition that hit so close to home. And so, Rigby has ventured far from her Gotham home now--which is just as well, because, as she sighs on her latest album, The Sugar Tree (Koch), "Home is where it hurts the most." Now living in Nashville, Rigby is less the confessional diarist and more self-consciously a songwriter. The double-aughts are a great time for punky country girl power, and like the oppressive Earl in the Dixie Chicks outlaw anthem, Rigby's past "had to die." Gone is her particular sunny indignation. In its place comes--well, a more universal sunny indignation.
In the background of the album is a smart production move, from the friendly but spare production that ex-Car Elliot Easton provided on Rigby's first two records to the studio partnership with Brad Jones, who cut his teeth engineering Dolly Parton records and whipped this year's Ass Ponies into rootsy shape. Playing with Nashville's finest session musicians--Will Kimbrough, Ross Rice, Pat Buchanan, Mickey Grimm, Dave Jacques--adds depth to Rigby's straightforward melodies, too. As is a common affliction with clever lyricists, Rigby has never been known for musical surprises. She might blurt out something crazy about not being able to find her diaphragm, but those chord changes never go anywhere you wouldn't expect them to. So her Nashville relocation makes sense. Music Row is where witty lyricists go to nestle in the comfort of capable ad hoc musical families, where smokin' players make up for simplicity with licks and fills. And Rigby's voice--little-girly in a breathy sort of way--is one that could stand to be roughed up by a little guitar blare.
All the rollicking on The Sugar Tree, if a little bland at spots, does fill out some of the more lonesome lyrics Rigby has offered yet. Far past pining, she now lilts, "I'm sleeping with the moon/'Cause you've gone away." Which isn't to say she has softened her physical directness any. On "Wait'll I Get You Home," Rigby teases, "There's too many people around/Wait'll I get you home and the walls come down" with an erotic energy that's as raw as ever. And the trademark sexual frustration is there as well, sometimes painfully present. One ambivalent pal compared the mood to "Make a Move on Me"-era Olivia Newton-John, the sound of an aging woman testifying all too insistently to the fact that she could still get "Physical." But with Rigby it's never just an empty come-on. What might on first listen sound like the soundtrack to a friendly game of darts packs a brutal chorus with lyrics like "Rode hard/And put away wet."
The CD's tear-jerk standout is the regretful "Happy for You," a plainspoken ballad of losing a friend to a new love. "Remember when we would laugh at lovers/Call them sentimental fools," Rigby coos. "Swore we'd never be that stupid/Now look at you." But the record's funniest song, "Cynically Yours," is also its most realistic (the chorus concedes "You don't suck/So I'm cynically yours"). A hard-swallowed resignation to less-than-ideal companionship, the track sees Rigby trill the uplifting sentiment, "The thought of us together doesn't fill me with dread," adding some wedding vows that include "We agree to part without the destruction of crockery, automobiles, or each other's good name in print or in song."
The moment is simultaneously cute and scathing--a tough balance to strike for a writer of any age. But without the breakthrough tunes, the sheer charm of her late-bloomer pluck won't carry another record. You've got to hope that in her new milieu she'll start hitting some country-pop homers that score musically as well as lyrically--and make her fables of romantic foibles that much easier to love.