REVIEW: Denise Lee’s ‘The Divas of American Music’ at the Winspear

With the Grammy Awards coming in less than three weeks, this coming Friday brings Dallas Voice’s annual Music Issue, so leading up to it, we’re gonna set the mood with reviews and interviews of trendsetting musicmakers all week long. First up: Denise Lee.

Broadway has told us for decades that life is a cabaret (old chum), but you got a sense for that being true inside Hamon Hall at the Winspear last night. That’s where before an enthusiastic crowd Denise Lee, one of Dallas’ reigning doyennes of song, celebrated her personal divas, from songwriters like Dorothy Fields (“No one ever remembers the lyricist,” she clucked, especially when they are women — she noted that the Songwriters Hall of Fame contains only seven women inductees) to stylists from Carole King to Barbra Streisand.

“This is a hard business,” Lee observed from the stage. But she makes it look easy.

Anyone familiar with Lee knows that her personality is casual and unfussed. She joked about her wardrobe malfunctions (“It’s amazing what you can do with Super Glue,” she sighed) and toyed with the mike stand; when she needed to refer to some written notes, she removed a paper from her bra (“these aren’t just to look at”). It was as friendly and warm and engaging as an evening with a friend and a bottle of wine.

But none of it would have mattered without the songs. Lee performed everything from “America, the Beautiful” to Lady Day’s “Strange Fruit,” to songs from Bonnie Raitt, Nina Simone (a roiling version of “Mississippi Goddam”), Joni Mitchell. Of course there was Aretha. But whoever popularized them first, the songs were all Lee’s own. She’s our diva.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

ALBUM REVIEW: Canyons, Larkin Grimm, Rumer, The Asteroids Galaxy Tour and Chris Willis

These January releases go from blah to bliss while an overlooked 2011 album kicks ass

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

Canyons
Keep Your Dreams
Modular Recordings

Although they don’t want to be labeled as dance/electronica, electronica act Canyons provides multitudes of synth and drum machines in all 11 tracks of their latest album. Dreams starts off with a hip bass line and groovy beat in “Under a Blue Sky,” but that interesting minute is quickly put to rest with the inclusion of saxophone. Initially, it registers as fascinating, but quickly becomes abrasive, that they prove the point that saxes and electronica do not blend well and the song devolves into a melange of animal sounds, ethereal vocals and pretty much drivel.

The Aussie band fares better in “My Rescue,” a offering more focus with stronger beat with vocals. Then it regresses into the pedestrian “See Blind Through.” The album has major ups and downs that  aren’t worth the ride with the second half  merely a haze of irregular beats. Strangely, 11 songs are listed, but 10 show up. However, I doubt the missing song could have made the album anything better.

One and half stars (out of five).

—  Rich Lopez

Sarah, upside down

Buzz surrounds local musician Sarah Jaffe, but she’s ready to move on

RICH LOPEZ | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

Going from playing smaller clubs like Dan’s Silverleaf and Club Dada, to selling out the Granada Theater last year, Sarah Jaffe’s star is on the rise. She gets a primo gig Saturday when she headlines at the Wyly Theatre in support of her 2010 full-length debut, Suburban Nature. After garnering attention for Nature locally and nationally (from the Dallas Observer to NPR), Jaffe wasn’t just a girl with a guitar — she unlocked yearning and pain with wisdom beyond her 25 years. Jaffe captures the poetry of life and love and sets it to music … even if she doesn’t mean to.

“I’ve never been a strategic writer and I’m thankful for that,” she says. “It comes out sporadically. There are those moment in life when I slow down and it’s just me being human and being alive and the writing is totally cathartic.”

Despite her ardent folk music and Joni-Mitchell-and-the-like upbringing (thank her parents), her musical affinity lies elsewhere.

“I love electronic music and I love making it. I’m obsessed with Robyn. I have this secret dream to be a choreographer because I legitimately love dancing. It makes me happy,” she gushes.

With big-time hype and attention, Jaffe is a contradiction to the ramping buzz about her work. She sounds like she wants a sensible perspective despite her self-proclaimed pessimism.

“I feel so lucky at this point. When people talk about you, it’s strange with even a small amount of success,” she says. “But there’s always some negativity. It’s a huge honor for people to recognize my work but I question myself. I’ve always been a cynic, but I guess I have a shitload to learn.”

Jaffe’s “small amount of success” has already been on the receiving end of the “is she or isn’t she” curiosity. She received accidental lesbian attention when AfterEllen.com included her in a travel destination piece on Dallas and, she surmises, the writer mistook her for Erase Errata’s Sara Jaffe. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise — it expanded her audience base.

“I do have a large lesbian following and it’s great anywhere it comes from,” she says. “Any sort of relating that anybody can get out of music is a wonderful thing.”

She’s learned quickly it comes with the territory, but it’s awkward for her nonetheless.

“It’s weird there’s this curiosity. Sexuality is gray for me but people are gonna talk about those things,” she says. “I’ve loved men and I’ve loved women but it’s more like I relate to a human connection. None of that matters to me.”

Jaffe’s just glad to get any person to her show as well as clean her slate. Despite the success of Nature, she’s ready to move on.

“I plan on an EP release this spring. They are all demos but I think there’s a charm in it,” she says. “I’m so proud of Suburban Nature, but the songs are like six or seven years old. And I’m chomping at the bit.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 11, 2011.

—  John Wright