Warner Brothers Earthbeat! 2-46292-A
review by Art Menius
The move towards the mainstream of Canadian singer-songwriter Ferron proves a tale of extraordinary talent overcoming a series of artificial barriers. Driver, her self-produced 1994 breakthrough compact disc, provided both her fifth and final independent label album and her major label debut. Driver earned a four star review from Rolling Stone and placed among the New York Times list of Top Ten albums of that year. While continuing to compose on acoustic guitar, already she had begun combining lush musical settings with her enchanting singing and amazing songwriting. Still Riot, her third Warner Brothers Earthbeat! Release, again finds Ferron in the producer’s chair with an evolving sound that continues to combine lush mainstream music – radio friendly–with those unbeatable words and powerful voice.
As a vocalist Ferron combines strengths of Aretha Franklin’s soulfulness, Joni Mitchell’s intimacy, and the feel of Edith Piaf. With that instrument she sings every word as if speaking directly to the listener, making it impossible not to become caught up in what she sings no matter how full the arrangement. Only a few poets possess such an effective delivery system, augmented on Still Riot by Indigo Girl Emily Saliers, Lauren Wood, and Chris Webster on backing vocals.
Even more than on Driver, the music on Still Riot swirls with synthesizers and horns, supported by guests Scarlet Rivera on fiddle, percussionist Vicki Randle, and Saliers on guitar. Ferron often positions herself as chanteuse supported by the rich music. Yet she can also rock, as demonstrated on the glorious “Venus As Appearances” with an arrangement distinguished by Rivera’s violin playing. On the title cut Ferron sings with the authority of Aretha, proving herself a dynamite R&B vocalist singing the “there is a way” repeating chorus that echoes strongly of “Spanish Harlem.” The sound proves as rich as any mainstream pop diva might employ on today’s version of “Moon, June” songs.
Ferron the lyricist, however, provides us with much more nourishing fare. She has earned comparisons to Dylan. Ferron, however, seems much in touch with feelings of ordinary people than the Zim. She writes songs that speak to the soul of the heart better than any composer today, cutting across lines of gender and orientation. Since Driver and especially last year’s Phantom Center, an optimism and joy has entered her writing, no doubt aiding in the rise of her profile. “Takes A Little Time” is downright playful. She can now find a deep expression of love in the exchange of a “brown care bear” (“Alice Says Yes”). She has learned that “maps can’t help, you can’t believe them” (“Venus As Appearances”). She remains mature and self-possessed to inquire, “After you have swallowed me, who do think you will be?” on the uncompromising “I Am Hungry.” Yet quoting lyrics out of context hardly serves Ferron well. Her songs are complete poems that need to be absorbed as a whole. Just listen to the superb pocket novel called “Ain’t Life A Brook,” in form an epistle to a long lost lover.
A remarkable journey is Ferron’s. Once an acoustic singer-songwriter with a cult following, her Still Riot contains several songs that could genuinely become hits. She has incorporated the demands of major label status without sacrificing any of the qualities that attracted her earliest fans. Ferron not only remains Ferron, she has evolved into an even better Ferron.