Poseidon and the Bitter Bug
2.5 of 5 stars
Time is a funny thing. Most things get worse with time (like milk), while others get better (like wine). And then there are the anomalies — those few items that are immune to the effects of time, staying forever unchanged. Like Twinkies.
The Indigo Girls are a bit like Twinkies. They’ve been around forever, never unanimously popular but they always have a cult of fervent followers. The content of their songs is complicated and obscured by heavy metaphor, and the topics of their songs are often at the center of some kind of controversy. The duo’s newest two-disc album, Poseidon and the Bitter Bug, follows this pattern. It’s folksy and sweet, but it’s still full of hidden morals. Poseidon is about as good as the duo’s last few albums, but not as great as the music the Indigo Girls put out in their prime.
The first disc features 10 tracks, with Amy Ray and Emily Sailers backed by a band and supported by all the usual trappings a well-polished production studio can offer. Even so, the Indigo Girls are known for their live acts and folksy sounds, and perhaps it’s because of this that Ray and Sailers include a second disc to the release; it contains stripped-down acoustic versions of the same material found on the first disc. The acoustic versions of the songs, it seems, maintains a sound more consistent with their previous, less-produced material.
Because Ray and Saliers are not ones to fix what seems to be working, they stick to their signature sound: folk music heavy on acoustic guitar and vocals while light on keyboard, percussion and other frills. The Girls’ voices are notable as well; Sailers’s soft falsetto complements the hippie vibe of the music and Ray’s deeper voice adds a rough edge to the tunes. Yet unlike the pure and simple melodies of their big hits in the early ’90s (like “Galileo” or “Romeo and Juliet”), this album feels a bit contrived. An overproduced and formulaic sound turns even the best of their lyrics’ Americana imagery to sap.
While the album’s sound holds the disc down, the lyrics carve out moving stories with artistic perfection. Three main themes (Americana, nostalgia and traditional myths and fables) are used on the album. They are fashioned by metaphor and imagery intelligent enough to seize beauty over melodrama — most of the time.
“Fleet of Hope” champions the beauty of the human capacity for hope. Allegorical in nature, the song begins with the story of a girl and a fisherman speaking to each other while they stare toward an ocean’s horizon: “We will have caught on to something by the end of the day / but mostly we think about the one that got away.”
The listener is then taken through a series of previous periods of despair but always comforted by the chorus’s qualifier: “‘Cause the fleet of hope is so pretty when she’s shining in the port / and the harbor clings to the jetty / for protection and support / Out in the choppy waters the sharks swim and play / you’re all washed up when Poseidon has his day.” Put in words as poetic as these, listeners can almost forgive the stereotypical emo imagery.
By far the most dramatic and emotionally charged track on the album is “True Romantic.” It opens with bare vocals and sparse guitar chords, building slowly before exploding into rocking belts, soaring piano and pounding kick drums and cymbal crashes. The track’s painful admission of personal faults gives listeners a glimpse of the Girls’ inner modern rock goddess. And that goddess looks a lot like Alanis Morissette.
The duo might have done better by picking and choosing between the full and acoustic versions of the album, as some songs work well backed by the band but falter in their acoustic counterparts, and vice-versa. The album continues the Indigo Girls’ trend of turning out mildly disappointing efforts — something fans have come to expect as the past seven or so albums have fallen flat compared to 1992’s heralded Rites of Passage. Poseidon and the Bitter Bug is full of poetically brilliant but melodically mediocre — and occasionally cloying — folk music.