You won’t find many surprises in the Indigo Girls’ latest outing, but with folk-pop this accomplished that’s not a bad thing
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. With few exceptions, Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have clung to that adage since their self-titled major label debut in 1988. After a brief detour into harder rocking, electric territory in the late ’90s that alienated some longtime fans, the Indigo Girls got back on track with 2002’s Become You. Their new album, All That We Let In, continues along that tried-and-true path with earnest, acoustic folk-pop that prominently showcases their trademark honey-coated harmonies and magnificent melodies.
All That We Let In finds the duo teaming once again with producer Peter Collins, who helmed Become You, Swamp Ophelia and Rites of Passage. The core band from their last album also returns, surrounding Ray and Saliers’ instrumentation with a heavy dose of organ, piano, accordion, bass and drums. Soulful singer Joan Osborne, who made a guest appearance on 1999’s Come On Now Social, joins the mix to lend backing vocals to a trio of tunes, adding a new dimension to the already impressive vocal interplay of Ray and Saliers.
Of the eleven songs on All That We Let In, six were written by Saliers, five by Ray. In characteristic Indigo Girls style, Ray contributes the majority of the rockers and politically-motivated songs, while Saliers primarily focuses on power hooks and romantic ballads. The album is bookended by a pair of upbeat folk-rockers from Saliers, “Fill It Up Again ” and the Elton John-influenced “Rise Up, ” on which the duo sings “there’s life in the old girl yet. ” At ages 39 and 40, respectively, Ray and Saliers certainly have plenty of life left in them and aren’t afraid to show it.
The Indigo Girls are known almost as much for their use of song to push their social and political agendas as for their tight harmonies. The aforementioned “Fill It Up Again ” employs environmental metaphors to describe a deteriorating relationship. “You’ve been the hole in my sky, my shrinking water supply, ” sings Saliers on this empowering standout track. “Perfect World, ” another album highlight, is a pop anthem extolling an awareness of the need to protect the simple beauty of our less-than-perfect world. Native American activism, previously expressed in “Jonas and Ezekial, ” “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee ” and songs from Shaming of the Sun among others, resurfaces on Ray’s “Cordova, ” a somber, heartbreaking lullaby honoring deceased fellow activists. With simple keyboards, bass accompaniment and a recorder solo, “Cordova ” is surprisingly the album’s most intimate, breathtaking moment.
The duo also excels at applying their unique blend of melancholy and exhilaration to themes both intimate and universal. The Saliers-penned “Free In You ” is a straight-ahead love song, while the title track, a celebration of life and love, came about after the sudden death of a friend in an auto accident.
Ray’s songwriting abilities fall a few steps behind Saliers’ on All That We Let In. She earns the honor of album low point with “Dairy Queen, ” an unusually upbeat breakup song with a string of trite lyrics (“I heard that you were drunk and mean down at the Dairy Queen “). The punchy ska rhythms of “Heartache For Everyone, ” a Clash-inspired song originally intended for a new Ray solo album, seem a bit out of place on this collection. One can’t help but imagine how it would sound with a raw, indie-rock arrangement reminiscent of Stag, her solo debut. Ray ultimitely redeems herself on “Tether, ” by far the album’s edgiest track. A cryptic anti-war anthem, the song opens with an organ prelude before giving way to the old-school Southern rock charm of Ray and Saliers’ dueling lead guitars. Showing off her impressive vocabulary, Ray casually tosses in “manumission ” as if it’s an everyday word. Meaning “to release from slavery, ” the word gives you an indication of the gravity of this scorching rocker.
Is All That We Let In predictable? Yes, but that isn’t a bad thing. As their musical partnership nears the 20-year mark, there is much comfort to be found in the uplifting consistency of the Indigo Girls. This album is certain to leave fans saying, “Thanks, y’all! ”