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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Blast From The Past: Denise Culhane - Love And Understating

Denise Culhane – Love and Understating
2000, Denise Culhane

There are classic Indie albums that everyone has heard of, and then there are the ones that never got on many people’s radar.  These usually happen because a really talented artist in a small local scene never gets the right breaks, or life circumstances gets in the way of taking things to the next level, or any one of another hundred possible reasons.  Today, as part of a new monthly series spotlighting classic Indie albums, I would like to introduce you to Denise Culhane. 

Culhane was part of a burgeoning music scene in the Albany, New York area in the late ‘90’s and early-aughts, along with folks like Mother Judge, Marcus Ruggiero, Matt Smith, Rosanne Raneri, The Figgs, Sirsy and seminal children’s act The Zucchini Brothers.  Culhane came to prominence on a locally produced television series Sounding Board, featuring live local music circa 1999 on television station WRGB.  Culhane was then promoting her debut album, Love and Understating.

Love and Understating was a low-fi affair cut on a shoestring budget.  Culhane herself acknowledges that there is more she would have done with the songs if the money had been there, but the sound is part of the charm of the album.  Love and Understating is an intimate affair, like a house concert among good friends.  The album begins with “Garden Party”, an intentionally cliché-filled song of partially unrequited love.  Culhane engages in wordplay both brilliant and mundane to capture the ambivalence of a relationship where only one party is invested.  The muted pop/rock arrangement fits the lyrics, and Culhane’s voice is a perfect match – invoking emotion and pure craft for an imperfectly perfect performance.  “Conflict of Interest” is driven by a powerful pop/rock arrangement and may well be the epilogue to “Garden Party”.  Culhane is getting ready to take flight here, and is beating him to the punch in the process.  This low-key, lo-fi effort is a very effective and emotive piece of song craft.  “Fly” takes a more introspective route, ruminating on love, loss, indecision and first steps.  It’s one of the deeper bits of songwriting on the album, and is a quiet gem.

Culhane is just getting warmed up, however.  The next three tunes are among some of the finest songwriting you’ll find in Indie rock from that era.  “Mirror Mirror” could be the anthem for every Indie artist of any era, a self-portrait of an artist trying to make it and dealing with her own self-doubt.  The upbeat pop arrangement will get stuck in your head and stay there.  “Torpid Heart” wins the award for best use of the word ‘torpid’ in a pop song ever.  That aside, this is a brilliant piece of songwriting about trying to pick your way through the minefields of love.  The lyrical constructs here are a bit awkward at times, but it is an honest awkwardness born of the uncertainty of love, and serves to make the song all the more genuine and charming.  The highlight of the album is “Just Hold My Hand”, which might possibly be the best pop song released in the mid-1990’s.  It’s a simple appeal for love and affection that is universal in its appeal and the song is an absolute piece of ear candy. 

“Rain Falls” is another universally themed number dealing with the inherent tendency for things to go wrong in relationships.  It’s well written, and Culhane’s voice is in top form here.  “Awry” is an utterly gorgeous vocal performance, with Culhane showing off the breadth and range of her sound.  “Outcast” is an energetic rocker that could use a bit more fleshing out but is well written.  The concept of relationships as a minefield recurs.  Culhane closes things out with “Run Away”, a solid closer that’s a bit on the downside, but aurally appealing nonetheless.

Denise Culhane’s Love And Understating is a brilliant effort from a then young songwriter trying to understand the ins and outs of relationships.  The songwriting is intelligent with a rough hewn but full of a distinctive melodic pop sensibility.  With the right budget and the right producer, this album would have launched Culhane into the stratosphere of popular music.  As it is, Love And Understating is an overlooked gem.

Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)

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