COME ACROSS THE RIVER (Sonic Boom), Seattle singer-songwriter Heather Duby's latest album, is a new release in more than one way. Her 1999 Sub Pop debut, Post to Wire, plaintively mixed electro atmosphere with an emotional pop sensibility, commanding the attention of local and national critics and earning Duby a small but rabid legion of fans. Shows at various Seattle venuesincluding a few where Duby clings to the Ms. Pac-Man machine for dear life between sets (her love for the game "verges on autism")cemented her reputation as a husky-voiced, lyrically moody Goth-pop starling the Northwest could call its own (with many such acts, including Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan, having gone national a decade before). But if hyphenated labels and artist comparisons could sum up Duby's sound, River wouldn't be the achievement it is: a much more intimate self-portrait from an artist on the outgoing end of some serious turmoil.
"I really wanted to do something more tangible. I wanted to try my hand at writing solid compositions," Duby says from her Seattle home. "I think that's still something I'm working on, but I had more success with Come Across the River." Despite the doom-and-gloom sensation you might receive from her music, Duby comes across as an upbeat individual. Nonetheless, the implied violence of lyrics like "She's touched like a deadly live wire/You're standing in water, it would seem" ("Stamped Out") has to come from somewhere. When asked whether Seattle inspires such ominous songwriting, Duby lets Rain City off the hook. "I don't really think the darkness in my music has anything really to do with this city," she assures me. "That's something that exists in meit's not from some external, environmental factor. I've had a lot of loss over the last few years, easily the hardest three years of my life. That's why it's a sad record; it was a release." Familial discord and interpersonal hardship aside, Duby also experienced an uninvited taste of mortality thanks to a monster case of tonsillitis, which threatened her healthand her voicebut ultimately failed to leave lasting effects.
"I have kind of a love-hate [relationship] with performing," she says. "I do have stage fright." Many performers favor small, intimate venues for this reason. Duby goes the other way: "I seem to get more nervous in a smaller room. "Bigger rooms feel like you're less important and maybe people won't really notice you anyway, but small rooms are just more intense, which I think is better for the stuff I write, but can be a lot more nerve-wracking."
THOUGH THE MAJORITY of the production on River (by Duby, bandmates Bo Gilliland and Erik Akre, and Pigeonhed mastermind Steve Fisk) is big-room readythe driving piano-drums-cello backdrop and take-charge beats of opener "Make Me Some Insomnia" or the darkly flowing current of "Stamped Out"certain tracks take up very little sonic space. "Auto Immune," for example, is a delicate art song, with piano and cello following Duby's spry voice in lockstep, tracing out a single thread of melody instead of the riveting harmonies she develops on "Insomnia." Creating a cabaret of the mind, "The Rare Vavoom" recalls early, sinister Sarah McLachlan (e.g., "Black" from Solace), at once seductive, playful, and morally defeated, as when Duby riffs on the inconstancy of man: "'Cause if you ever have changed your mind/ You know it's better to stay resigned/I've made my offer for the last time/Don't look for me when you've changed your mind." After the affectionate lullaby of "Your Blue Shoes" (complete with chirping crickets), "Providence" introduces an unnamed female character. "Dear Providence, please smile," she croons over an urgent snare drum-bass push. "On her a while/Never was one to lay blame/Until they took her from me." If it's reading too much into the song to imagine the one in need of salvation is Duby herself, it'd be sweet to think the difficult path to this River has finally been smiled upon by some musical Providence that will be present Friday night. At the very least, Ms. Pac-Man awaits.
Heather Duby plays Graceland with the Dirtmitts at 8 p.m. Fri., Dec. 5. $7.