This has been a fantastic year for female singer-songwriters. Ani DiFranco released her finest album in years, Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine leaked to the public, and Feist, Regina Spektor and Martha Wainwright emerged as vital talents. With such rarefied company, it’d be easy for a young artist without a strong musical identity to get lost in the shuffle. But with her enchanting debut, All Rise, Los Angeles-based songstress Inara George displays enough quirky songcraft and pop smarts to confirm her space in this year’s musical firmament.
Growing up in the fertile artist enclave of Topanga Canyon just outside Los Angeles, George was surrounded by musicians from a young age. Her father, guitarist Lowell George, founded Little Feat, and at one point or another Van Dyke Parks, Jackson Browne, country avatar Terry Allen and the Violent Femmes passed through the George household. The folky underpinnings of “Fools Work” and “Good to Me” might conjure up images of a baby Inara sitting on the living room floor, listening to daddy play with his famous friends, but she is too imaginative a songwriter to simply pay homage to her influences. Yes, there are the hooky pop melodies and swooning acoustic ballads and beautiful singing and evocative lyrics that you’d expect of a singer-songwriter album. But the joy of listening to All Rise is hearing George and producer Michael Andrews recast all these familiar elements into new contexts.
Her distinctive voice is the airplane fuel that lets her songs take off. With a clear, vibrato-less tone, George is a natural at that slightly detached Suzanne Vega coo — her achingly pretty take on Joe Jackson’s “Fools in Love” is so elegant that the forced “heroes/zeroes” rhyme in the chorus passes by unnoticed. And George can summon razor-sharp power, too. When she slices insistently through the rollicking Brit-stomp of “Genius,” you’ll stop waiting so impatiently for the upcoming New Pornographers album.
Producer/guitarist Andrews (who composed the Donnie Darko film score) brings a sense of cinematic wonderment to each of these songs, many of which he co-wrote. From the seamless mix of digital and organic in “Mistress” to “What a Number’s” delirious hang-glider ride of a background, every detail is perfectly calibrated to make you sigh or clap your hands in delight. Like Jon Brion’s work with Fiona Apple, Andrews’s swirling production is sumptuous but flattering. It provides a pillow for George’s gorgeous voice to rest upon.
On All Rise, George looks forward while remaining true to traditional folk and pop forms. Her music-box arrangements have a child-like giddiness about them, but this collection of glittering songs has an emotional and sonic maturity that will keep you listening long past bedtime.