Harmony is one of nature’s great mysteries, but the sound of perfectly blended voices — even regardless of individual qualities — is irrefutable, a force able to surmount almost any musical obstacle thrown in its path. As a credible explanation for the early success of the Indigo Girls — when harmony was the only useful weapon they could wave at horrifically prosaic lyrics and overbearing emotionalism — it’ll have to suffice. Until the Georgia duo of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers (who was actually born in Connecticut) gained enough of a creative foothold to explore subtler, more sophisticated areas, they got by on nothing more than the elemental allure of their interwoven singing.
Without any significant adjustment in the coffeehouse crooning of their nascence, Ray and Saliers segued from hometown folkies to chart stars in 1989, long before they were any good. Ready in a pole position thanks to two indie records and a major-label contract when Tracy Chapman’s debut album opened the floodgates in 1988, the Indigo Girls were swept up in acoustic pop’s commercial resurgence. Arriving on the national scene at just around the same time as Melissa Etheridge (who could probably have replaced the rough-voiced Ray in those days), they provided a gentler, less torrid — and, yes, more harmonious — sonic alternative, a measure of button-down restraint which Ray later attempted to redress.
The first three records describe the pair’s casual transition from amateur folk to lightly electrified accomplished folk-rock, raising the stylistic flag of ’60s singer/songwriters, only with preposterous lyrics. Although influenced by such greats as Bob Dylan and Tim Hardin, Ray and Saliers (writing separately, as they have continued to do) land neck deep in the clunky self-searching pathos of a later time. Although it sounds like it was recorded in a closet, the debut EP has some bright moments, such as “Lifeblood,” with its rich pop melody and boost of percussion, and “Finlandia,” an a cappella hymn with flawlessly pitched vocals. Strange Fire is also spotty: the slow ballads just sound sleepy, and moments of crucial intensity come off more like Judy Blume novels. But the title track shows just how much Ray and Saliers can accomplish on their own: a single strum of Ray’s guitar feels as big as a decade, and the interplay of voices and guitars creates rhythmic balance and a beautiful dynamic. “Crazy Game,” “Make It Easier” and the mandolin- accompanied “I Don’t Wanna Know” are also standouts.
Despite the move to a major label, the differences between Strange Fire and Indigo Girls are subtle. Most notably, Indigo Girls (the album) contains Saliers’ ebullient signature tune “Closer to Fine,” a melodic winner that has to navigate such choppy academic waters as “I went to see the doctor of philosophy / With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee / He never did marry or see a B-grade movie / He graded my performance, he said he could see through me.” Together with producer Scott Litt, Ray and Saliers take a few more chances with embellishments — members of Hothouse Flowers help out on two tracks (including “Closer to Fine”), and a Michael Stipe-less R.E.M. backs Ray on the country-rockish “Tried to Be True.” Stipe delivers a beautiful backing vocal on “Kid Fears,” a cutting chronicle of lost innocence.
“Hammer and a Nail,” which opens Nomads*Indians*Saints, has the kind of rousing jingle chorus that excuses all sorts of sins — if you can hear it through the gales of laughter sure to accompany couplets like “I look a lot like Narcissus / A dark abyss of an emptiness.” (Mary Chapin Carpenter sings on the track; Peter Holsapple plays accordion. The album was produced by Litt.) The stylistic gulf between Saliers (alluring, joyous folk optimism, with bookish lyrics and a sometimes country twist) and Ray (downcast melodrama with an incipient rock edge and a gristly Springsteen fixation) gapes wide here, and that makes for a diminution — literally and thematically — in the album’s, er, harmony.
Back on the Bus, Y’All is a brief and not especially well sung live record containing six originals, Ray’s wretched mugging of “All Along the Watchtower” and the Nomads*Indians*Saints not-live version of the overwrought “1 2 3.” Four years later, the duo filled two CDs with an assortment of live performances, radio broadcasts and ephemera (including one new studio recording and a basement tape from 1982) and issued them as 1200 Curfews.
Peter Collins produced Rites of Passage, erasing the folk patina to reveal a crystalline mainstream pop center around the snappy, subtle rhythms of bassist Sara Lee and drummer Jerry Marotta; guest appearances by the Roches, Jackson Browne and David Crosby signify the group’s stature and modern aspirations. Complicating the sound is good: full-bodied arrangements soften (or at least disguise) Ray’s hard edges and give Saliers an ambitious plateau to explore. “You know me I take everything so seriously,” she sings, and dadgone it, she’s right, upping the album’s literacy quotient with songs about “Galileo” and “Virginia Woolf.” (The one entitled “Romeo and Juliet” belongs to Mark Knopfler, however.)
Collins’ goal for the stripped-down Swamp Ophelia, however, appears to be a modern analogue to Carole King’s Tapestry. With more intricate vocal designs, piano and light, breezy arrangements (Marotta is positively zen in his subdued touch; Lisa Germano adds an extra acoustic trimming, either violin or mandolin, to half the songs), the songs reclaim the Indigos’ roots without shedding the pop sensibility they’ve gained along the way. While Saliers (who breaks the rules with a solo rendition of “Fare Thee Well”) isn’t at her best, recycling an old melody for “Least Complicated” and generally succumbing to a wistful dispirited tone, Ray has stopped overpowering every song for a change. Although her anguished “Fugitive” is typically zealous, the craggy “This Train Revised,” an original about the Holocaust that borrows phrases from Woody Guthrie and Peter Gabriel, nearly merits the Patti Smith-styled delivery.
Outside her group responsibilities, Amy Ray owns and operates (and records solo for) Daemon Records in Georgia.