Following the breakup of the Shams, and a subsequent break-up from former dB’s drummer Will Rigby, Amy Rigby became a solo artist. Her debut, the masterfully titled Diary of a Mod Housewife, garnered significant press and a host of awards on the basis of its subject matter: the autobiographical travails of a working single mom struggling to make ends meet. The acclaim was well-deserved, as Rigby (singing in a periodically cracked voice that indicates her desperation to find love, companionship, and a decent standard of living) can be angry-funny (“20 Questions”), sad-defiant (“We’re Stronger Than That”), and simply pop-perfect (“Time for Me to Come Down,” “Down Side of Love”). Her musical influences trace back to the twang of Nashville, the pedal steel of Austin, the power-pop of LA and the jangle of North Carolina. The production (by former Car Elliot Easton) incorporates subtle keyboards in the vaguely Dolly Parton-ish (i.e., “9 to 5,” not “Jolene”) “Good Girls.” John Wesley Harding duets on the breakup saga “Beer & Kisses” and guests like Garner, Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan and others fill out the record beautifully. One of the most effective songs here is the simplest: “Knapsack,” rendered in the minimalist guitar-vocal form from which all the songs evolved, is the best of a good bunch. In its mix of the banal and the desperate, Rigby’s first-person account of desire for an unnamed bookstore employee packs a lot of depth into a very small package.
Middlescence (this woman certainly has a knack for clever album titles) is overcome by nostalgia and regret, expounding on the difficulties of raising children on pink-collar wages, finding romance as a single mother and missed opportunities. “The Summer of My Wasted Youth” and “20th Anniversary” dissect Rigby’s teenage years and twenties slackerdom with affection, not romance. “Unemployment kept me free / To study country harmony,” she remarks, among reminiscences of failed affairs and half-hearted employment. The nostalgia is great, but the songs set in the present day lack the cockeyed affection for the mod housewife life. The tone is more bitter, the lyrics a bit more desperate. Easton’s production flourishes (theremin?) seem obtrusive against the basic folk-rock structures. The Bangly “All I Want,” though, is another should-have-been pop hit. One highlight is the unlisted bonus track, “Tonight I’m Gonna Give the Drummer Some,” which takes time out midway for a drummer joke.
It’s hard to say why Sugar Tree is so underwhelming (other than the crummy cover art), but it does overemphasize Rigby’s taste for profanity and lousy puns. The wryly risqué “Cynically Yours” got her on the Conan O’Brien show, but “Balls” is overkill. She tends to put the best track at the start of each album, but “Wait Til I Get You Home” doesn’t compare with her other lead-offs. The album is unfortunately bar-band-oriented, and the quieter acoustic tracks don’t hold up either.
18 Again usefully consolidates the highlights of Rigby’s three albums for Koch, adding a few new tunes. Rigby had relocated to Nashville, where her songs were beginning to win an audience among the country music scene’s cognoscenti. Til the Wheels Fall Off is her best record since Diary of a Mod Housewife. Opening track “Why Do I” sets the stage with its refrain, “I kiss the boys / but I’m the one who cries,” and the album makes good use of such simpatico guests as Bill Lloyd and Richard Barone. Rigby’s coffeehouse folk songwriting hits new peaks with the touching “Don’t Ever Change” and “O’Hare,” which contains some of her best funny/tender couplets.
Faulkner, Dylan, Heinz & Me includes a wonderful version of the late Kirsty MacColl’s “They Don’t Know” alongside a host of songs that never made her studio albums, including “William Faulkner’s Maalox,” Dylan’s “Hurricane” and a higher-than-usual ratio of gag songs. A similar side project for the fans, the DVD Amy Rigby Live: One Night @ Barry’s, has Rigby performing many of her own tracks alongside a host of punk covers, including X’s “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts,” with her daughter Hazel.
Rigby returned to New York from Nashville and cut another fine record, Little Fugitive, which borrows its title from a bleak 1950s film. Among many highlights is the absolutely exuberant “Dancing With Joey Ramone,” which manages to sound like a punk-rock song by the Supremes; and “I Don’t Wanna Talk About Love No More,” which might be her take on a fantasy of Sleater-Kinney doing the similarly titled Nanci Griffith song. While the rock tracks take the foreground, with assistance from members of the Shams as well as other past musical partners, Rigby doesn’t abandon her singer-songwriterly side either, with the empathetic “Trouble With Jeannie” (about her new husband’s ex-wife) and a touching Lenny Kaye composition, “Things We Leave Behind.”