Becky Warren

Independent release, 2018


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Most of us, when we encounter a homeless person, instinctively look away. Singer-songwriter Becky Warren chose instead to look closer, to wonder about the stories of the men and women she met on the streets of Nashville, and then to ask them about the how and the why that led them to where they are today.

The end result of Warren’s compassion and curiosity is an album that never preaches or wallows, only illustrates in direct and honest terms the reality of the lives she encountered. Undesirable is a triumph in every respect, an engaging, empathetic and at times rousing song-cycle that feels like a novel composed of 11 linked short stories. These stories are populated by distinct, artfully sketched characters whose lives and flaws and joys and pains Warren brings to life against a backdrop of confident, powerful roots-rock that’s equal parts Lucinda Williams and Tom Petty, while at times achieving the sheer impact of early Springsteen.

As a songwriter, Warren is clearly unafraid to tackle difficult subject matter. Her 2016 debut album, War Surplus, was an equally resolute examination of the damage done by war, a subject matter Warren was intimately familiar with as the ex-wife of a soldier who came home from Iraq suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In turning her attention to the homeless, Warren wisely chooses not to lecture the listener with 11 tales of woe; instead she crafts a series of naturalistic, multilayered, completely gripping character sketches. The themes addressed are unsurprising—alienation, loneliness, dysfunction, addiction, and abusive relationships—but Warren elevates the conversation with narratives that are smart and genuine and unflinching, capturing each character’s essential humanity while providing context for their lives and choices.

As potent as the music is—courtesy of Dan Knobler (guitars & production), Jeremy Middleton (bass & additional production), Jason Burger (drums), Jeff Malinowski (acoustic guitars), and Danny Mitchell (organ & keys)—it’s the lyrics that elevate this album from great entertainment to simply great. Every single song had at least one line that took my breath away.

“My bones are tired, but my heart’s an unpinned hand grenade” sings Warren in ringing opener “We’re All We’ve Got,” a rich portrait of a character who’s stripped away every piece of her life that didn’t work until all that’s left is herself and her street community, “a pile of forgotten forget-me-nots.” One detail after another feels authentic and can’t-look-away wrenching on a track that features harmony vocals from friend and mentor Amy Ray of Indigo Girls.

Nostalgia overtakes the frustrated barfly narrator of “Nobody Wants To Rock And Roll No More,” whose four-on-the-floor, guitars-on-eleven arrangement is all bruising, ironic charm. Still, the best moment lyrically might be the very last couplet of the song: “Now all of those girls went and moved uptown / They’re driving the carpool and looking worn down.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Dobbs Avenue” bats third, a languorous, liquid blues shuffle that cuts a slice of life that feels as real as a rainy Sunday morning out on the boulevard. It’s beautiful and brilliant and achingly sad in an off-hand, undramatic way; you feel like these are people you saw yesterday or last week or last month, and tried not to look too long, because it hurt too much. “I’ve made peace of this life of mine,” her haunted narrator sings, “But you never cross my mind / You just hang there all the time,” as the reverb-heavy guitar magnifies the ache in her voice.

“Sunshine State” opens up with bright chords and a bit more urgency, a tale of one ex-con reaching out to another. “Michael it’s me, I can’t believe I finally got your phone number / Took three shots of Beam and a pool hall queen to get it out of Fat Jay,” Warren sings, painting a picture that would make a young Springsteen tip his cap and bow. The scene she’s setting couldn’t be more vibrantly alive, as the poetry flowing from her pen just keeps coming. “We didn’t know a thing about regret then / Living with the savagery of dead men… Did you serve it out always thinking about the twenty years you put me in for? / Nevermind, I don’t wanna know the answer / That kind of thing will kill you like a cancer.”

“I swear I’m givin’ up on ever bein’ sad again,” Warren sings in the bouncy, arcade-styled “Carmen,” whose narrator fantasizes about finding a “little blue house” and settling down, another damaged person full of hopes and dreams but with no idea how to get from here to there. “Highway Lights” again evokes Born To Run-era Springsteen with a tale of a marginal character who’s “Older than I ever thought I’d be / Sleeping ’neath the auto parts store marquee” as the highway lights pour across the nearby billboards.

In case you aren’t blown away yet, “Half-Hearted Angel” arrives with the coup de grace, a stark, crushingly beautiful ballad whose narrator shares her story with brittle candor. “You know what they say about half-hearted angels like me / We spend all our nights pinning hopes where our wings used to be.” “You’re Always Drunk” offers a change of pace, a tight, witty 2:11 honky-tonk kiss-off that repeatedly generates laughs from a situation that in reality isn’t funny: “Don’t know where I’m going / Just somewhere without your face / I’ll sleep in a phone booth / It’s better than this place / Where you’re always always always always…”

This far in, you might anticipate a drop-off in quality, but it never comes. In fact track nine, “Let Me Down Again,” contains the very heart of this album in its improbably catchy chorus: “Nobody’s ever / Gonna be someone / Who can up and let me down again.” How do people end up homeless? The details may vary, but so many of the stories seem to come down to running away from some kind of disappointment, a deep hurt that fuels distrust and isolation.

Penultimate track “Valentine” takes the perspective of a parent left behind by a runaway child, holding onto an old photo: “Half the shot is turning white now / Like it’s been sitting in the sun / But she still blazes like a larkspur / Just barely twenty-one.” As a parent, this one tears my heart clean out. Warren finishes strong with a visit to “The Drake Motel,” bouncy guitars and rhythm section contrasting sharply with another potent, unmerciful lyric: “I don’t know how much more of my own heart I can take / Rolling around the city all day like loose change / I stay up at night and play your memory on repeat / It’s the only song that kills the lonely.”

Undesirable is lit up by the stark beauty of the characters its author describes, never judging, simply chronicling with a novelist’s eye the fundamental core of humanity that even the most bruised and beaten down among us retains. Becky Warren celebrates that undeniable spark with a record that’s both a terrific batch of Americana, and a genuine work of art. You need this one like an addict needs a fix.

Rating: A

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