Drummers may be the butt of endless musician jokes, but at least they’re noticed enough to be teased. When was the last time anyone taunted the violin player? It’s only in recent years that the DIY spirit began moving fiddlers to make vocal pop albums of their own, and to date the list of participants in the movement doesn’t number much more than Lisa Germano, Alison Krauss, Tammy Rogers and Susan Voelz.
Reaching public attention as a member of Poi Dog Pondering (although, like Germano, she also played with John Mellencamp), Wisconsin native Voelz made her solo debut with 13 Ribs, a wonderful and eclectic record that showcases an appealing flyaway voice and intelligent, sensitive songwriting over her instrumental technique. Playing a little guitar and getting varied backing from Poi Dogs and other pals, Voelz sings about real things — a beloved pet, a river, a car crash, an old house — with articulate lyrics and exquisite musicianship. Sifting comfortably through mixes of folk and rock, a waltz, small-scale western swing, jugband eccentricity, elegiac grandeur and more, Voelz brings an intimacy and honesty to both sound and words that makes it all glisten like morning dew. “Good Day to Die” suggests where Natalie Merchant might aim if she drank more coffee; the swaying “Mr. Magoo” scrubs out the gooey stain of “Midnight at the Oasis” all by itself. “Let Me Be Your Bible,” a breezy Brill Building harmony popper wryly constructed from Scripture, is amazing; the rest of the record is nearly as good.
Back in the studio after “a year of touring…that included a spectacular rollover and over car wreck” (the aftermath of which is pictured in the artwork), Voelz changed the timbre of her tune for Summer Crashing. This equally artful album has lots more electric guitar (by Jon Sanchez), drums, distortion — and a dampened spirit, expressed in abstractly emotional songs of affecting solemnity. “Happy” sets the brief attainment of joy as an uncertain goal (“I don’t wanna feel bad/So I stop feelin’ anything”), but acknowledges the danger of such desire; as if by way of explanation, “William” concerns a manic depressive whose happiness gets him institutionalized. The low-key but powerfully atmospheric music orbits closely around a nucleus of Voelz’s breezy voice and mournful violin, reflecting aspects of her personality with prismatic variety and occasional solar flares illuminating the twilight. Mighty fine.