To repeat an old rant, too many Nashville-based female singers are like Lego pieces: unsnap one and pop another into place. As a rule they are young, small-voiced, whispery-toned sopranos—pretty to hear, but with all the distinctiveness of a block of clapboard houses painted white. Here's a June 2018 edition of Women with Amazing Voices—the ones that will make you want to stuff those Lego pieces back in the box and hide them in the closet.
Ellen Starski, The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants
Ellen Starski has a unique voice you'll either love or find odd. Put me firmly in the first camp. Its nasal, but expressive; dramatic, but controlled. The latter quality is one I really admire. "Daughter of the Sea" is a perfect example. This song has theatrical qualities with its bouncy, edgy strings, but it's deliberately paced and the tension comes from small shifts in Starski's voice, not flashy outbursts. It's also typical in that most of the songs are about loss, family, and coming to grips with the ways of adult life. "Ode to Nanny and Cookie" is about her grandmothers; the tone is somber and wrapped in moody repeated guitar pulses. "Miss You Mary" is homage to her mother and she wrenches emotion from lines such as I was looking for a place to bury the past with you. A different kind of yearning emerges in "Missing You," Glimpses of you still surface on my skin/I shower and the world comes crashing in…. Starski lists influences such as Leonard Cohen, Aimee Mann, and Sarah McLachlan, but there's also some old-time country in it that, to me, evoked Kitty Wells. Check out songs such as "Honey, I'm Not Him." When she sings I told you once don't make me tell you again/You better stay away from my man it's way more ominous than you'd expect. It also has Appalachian seasonings that reflect the northwest Pennsylvania coal country from which she hails. "Taken By the Breeze" also has an old-time flair, though its catchiness is enhanced with just a touch of mariachi brass that takes us south of the mountains. Ms. Starski also has a footlights-quality to parts of her repertoire. "Chasin' the Sun" feels like a string band vaudeville song, and she also engages in moody spoken word forays such as "Slip of Paper" and the title track, one that is completely silent for thirty seconds before Starski recites a rhythmic poem to flute and snare drum accompaniment. I always appreciate musicians who take chances and Starski's recording ranks high among my 2018 favorites. ★★★★★