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Indigo Girls

If arena-rockers HEART had been a folk-rock act maybe they would’ve sounded like INDIGO GIRLS. Formed in Decatur, Georgia, 1980 by individual singer-songwriters Amy Ray and Emily Saliers (who’d performed together since childhood) the duo have surpassed their forty-year landmark as leaders in their field of MOR acoustic-folk.
The girls made their vinyl debut in summer ‘85 with an independently released single `Crazy Game’, following it up with an eponymous EP and a self-financed debut album STRANGE FIRE (1987) {*5}. Not exactly setting the world alight, and with the success of such female nu-folk artists as SUZANNE VEGA and TRACY CHAPMAN, the INDIGO GIRLS’ cutesy-pie strum-friendly acoustics became hot property. The group were signed up by Epic Records, who almost immediately re-promoted the debut, a debut looking back had at least two concert draws in `Land Of Canaan’, the aforementioned single and a cover of The YOUNGBLOODS’ `Get Together’.
Featuring contributions from the likes of R.E.M., LUKA BLOOM and the blooming HOTHOUSE FLOWERS, INDIGO GIRLS (1989) {*8} was a strong major label debut proper, which had no problem crossing over from their loyal grassroots following to the pop market where it hit Top 30 status. Similar to The ROCHES, KATE WOLF or HOLLY NEAR, if a bit deeper (or equally) socially/environmentally aware, INDIGO GIRLS’ harmony-laden folk pop/rock found particular favour with the burgeoning US feminist movement; `Closer To Fine’, `Kid Fears’ and another attempt at `Land Of Canaan’ brought them into the bedsitter/college student brigade.
Again featuring an array of respected names including MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER and Jim Keltner, NOMADS – INDIANS – SAINTS (1990) {*7} wasn’t quite so successful, although it did throw up a couple of thought-provoking numbers in `Hammer And A Nail’, `Pushing The Needle Too Far’ and `World Falls’; the timing of mini-set LIVE: BACK ON THE BUS Y’ALL (1991) {*4} was a tad ill-advised but it did take on a rendition of DYLAN’s `All Along The Watchtower’.
Although the more adventurous (and featuring LISA GERMANO, The ROCHES, DAVID CROSBY, JACKSON BROWNE, and an orchestra conducted by Michael Kamen), RITES OF PASSAGE (1992) {*6} almost made the US Top 20 and was nominated for a Grammy; `Galileo’, `Joking’ and `Cedar Tree’ less recognisable than their folky reading of DIRE STRAITS’ `Romeo And Juliet’. The latter’s more expansive approach was further developed on SWAMP OPHELIA (1994) {*6}, which employed the violin of GERMANO to similarly impressive results alongside the acoustic bass playing of the ubiquitous DANNY THOMPSON, cellist Jane Scarpantoni and Canadian singer JANE SIBERRY. The record (complete with `Least Complicated’ and `Power Of Two’) finally took the pair into the Top 10, and, while that achievement was repeated with studio follow-up SHAMING OF THE SUN (1997) {*6}, their success in Britain remained minimal; their previous double live effort 1200 CURFEWS (1995) {*6} at least found space for a handful of rocking folk covers by way of JONI MITCHELL’s `River’, BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE’s `Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee’, `DYLAN’s `Tangled Up In Blue’, NEIL YOUNG’s `Down By The River’, Gerard McHugh’s `Thin Line’ and the GLADYS KNIGHT hit, `Midnight Train To Georgia’.
With its stellar cast of guests – including SHERYL CROW, Natacha Atlas, JOAN OSBORNE, ME’SHELL NDEGEOCELLO and The BAND’s Garth Hudson – and a thrillingly diverse approach, COME ON NOW SOCIAL (1999) {*7} was as likely as any of their past records to change that situation. While the album dabbled in heads-down GARBAGE-styled rock (`Go’), straight-up country (`Gone Again’), FLEETWOOD MAC/AOR (`Cold Beer And Remote Control’) and the soulful single `Peace Tonight’, it showcased the ‘Girls at the height of their art.
BECOME YOU (2002) {*6}, in contrast, was a pared back affair, shorn of any production or guest star excess, and concentrating on the kind of obliquely personal songwriting with which the group (also comprising back-up Carol Isaacs, Claire Kenny and Brady Blade) originally made their name; ALL THAT WE LET IN (2004) {*6} continued the run of Top 40 studio albums but was their last for Epic Records.
What happened at Hollywood Records and a 5-album record deal was for speculation, but the deal only furnished one set, the Mitchell Froom-produced DESPITE OUR DIFFERENCES (2006) {*6}; P!NK and Brandi Carlile were the photogenic glam behind the potpourri of Laurel Canyon-type folk fodder. A radical change of direction was needed, but whether POSEIDON AND THE BITTER BUG (2009) {*6} – their first for the rejuvenated independent Vanguard Records – was the musical fuel injection that was required, maybe only time will tell; another double-live venture STARING DOWN THE BRILLIANT DREAM (2010) {*6} – closing with the JAGGER-RICHARDS nugget `Wild Horses’ (move over SuBo) – and a bluegrass festive set HOLLY HAPPY DAYS (2010) {*5} were nothing new from a duo who might still make it big outside North America.
Reuniting with producer Peter Collins, the INDIGO GIRLS’ return to the Top 40 came via 14th album, BEAUTY QUEEN SISTER (2011) {*6}. Augmented by drummer Brady Blade, violinist Luke Bulla, bassist Frank Swart and Wurlitzer player Carol Isaacs, there were also singing guest spots for LUCY WAINWRIGHT ROCHE and DAMIEN DEMPSEY. An easy and flighty blend of country and folk, the duo captured their usual blend of spiritual roots in `Share The Moon’, `War Rugs’, `Making Promises’ and `Damo’.
Both now in their fifties, singer-songwriters Amy and Emily turned in their long-awaited 14th studio set ONE LOST DAY {*7} in 2015. Hooking up with producer/multi-instrumentalist and ardent fan Jordan Brooke Hamlin, the partly-introspective INDIGO GIRLS had a distinctive anything-goes air, from the opening new-country of `Elizabeth’ and the breezy Laurel Canyon-baked `Southern California Is Your Girlfriend’, to The BANGLES-esque `Happy In The Sorry Key’ and the broadside `The Rise Of The Black Messiah’, the record told many a tale about man’s transgressions.
As ambitious and dramatic as it sounded, LIVE WITH THE UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (2018) {*6} – recorded at Macky Auditorium on April 15, 2017 – singer-songwriters Amy Ray and Emily Sailers accomplished much in this lush and lavish 22-track double-CD. It was certainly a different take on the standard concert record; a 65-piece orchestra now at their disposal. Produced and mixed by Trina Shoemaker, and winding up tours alongside arrangers Sean O’Loughlin and Stephen Barber that had stretched back some five years, INDIGO GIRLS’ contemporary folk music segued gracefully into classical pop; and concluded fittingly with `Closer To Fine’.
With producer John Reynolds back in the fray (and sticking with Rounder Records), the effervescent and earnest INDIGO GIRLS ignored the creative cull of Covid-19 to unfetter another comforting and cathartic set of songs in LOOK LONG (2020) {*7}. The duo’s tried and tested formula of folk and contemporary country was still adhered to as they painted from personal experiences a la funky/twangy opener `Shit Kickin’’, the heartfelt `Country Radio’, the heartland `Muster’, the garage-y `Change My Heart’ and the quirky `Howl At The Moon’. Pity then the set only managed a paltry high of #159 chart-wise, the same number their debut set hit way back in ’87.
© MC Strong 1994-2011/GRD-GFD2 // update MCS Mar2013-Jun2020

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