Amy Ray takes listeners to church on her new solo album, Lung of Love. The church, that is, of rock music.
''Oh the rock is my foundation,'' she sings. ''Jesus is at the bass, God is on the kick drum, and the Holy Spirit sings.''
But nothing is ever quite that simple in the world of Amy Ray, still best known as one half of the Georgia-based lesbian folk duo the Indigo Girls. In the past dozen years, Ray has released several solo albums in between Indigo Girls records and tours, all informed more by her punk predilection than the sweet harmonious folk bliss of her work with Emily Saliers.
The end result is often not all that edgy – more pop than rock. That is, when it's not something else entirely. While it may sound like she's praising rock music in ''The Rock Is My Foundation,'' for example, Ray is actually toasting Appalachian country music here. The album's press release reports that the jaunty spiritual, which features guest vocals from Brandi Carlile, was recorded on a Sunday morning with local musicians in North Carolina in a building that also houses a couple gospel churches. The banjo and steel guitar help everyone get into a tizzy, forgetting all about life's trials and tribulations – or musical distinctions.
Ray's handlers call her a ''punk-folk icon.'' The ''icon'' may overstate her significance, but the ''punk-folk'' moniker does convey her straddling sound. As a solo artist, Ray is best when she finds the common ground in between punk and folk: usually soft rock, edgy pop or driving country, and passionate tunes that are often both hard and tender, heated yet still calm.
Lung of Love is chiefly focused on the struggles of love and loss. The album opens with the gently swaying ''When You're Gone, You're Gone.'' Ray isn't quite over a former lover, but she realizes she needs to finally let her go. Ray sings the titular phrase with resolve toward the song's end – but then album producer and co-writer Greg Griffith belies any sense that she's moving on quickly, drawing out the final note from his steel guitar until it simply dissolves after nearly 20 seconds.
''Hey, did we glow, did we grow, when we should have been diminishing?'' she sings on the short and sweet rocker ''Glow.'' ''Hey, did we burn, did we yearn, when we should have been extinguishing?'' Oh, well, she says, as a ''ba, ba-ba-ba'' chorus chimes in, ''it was the best day I ever had.''
The title track is an aching rock ballad about, essentially, taking a deep breath and preparing yourself to love again, no matter how much pain love has caused you before. The album's press release humorously heralds Ray's choice of internal organ, breathing new life into a metaphor for love over the clichéd heart. ''The lung is as overlooked and misunderstood as a gangly feminist at a beauty pageant,'' it reads.
Well, sure. But even here, it's the heart that wins – and loses – the crown. The set's best tune, ''I Didn't,'' is a sad song about the reason why a relationship can't last. ''Someone broke your heart,'' Ray sings, before responding quickly, a half-beat early, ''I didn't.'' ''Someone got there a long time before me.'' It's enough to break your heart all right.
Download These: ''Glow,'' ''I Didn't''