Jetty Rae, despite your best guess, isn’t a country singer. She’s one of many grandchildren of folk, country, and singer-songwriting tradition, blending their soulful inflections with pop tradition. I first heard her when she released her “Pen Pals EP” with Heath McNease, a self-avowed fan of hers, and of whom I was a huge fan myself. I was enchanted with their duets, and quickly caught up with Jetty’s quirky career trajectory. She played the Lilith Fair in Detroit after being noticed by Sarah McLachlan, she released an album full of lullabies, and she’s currently living in a retro Airstream trailer in an attempt to simplify her life.
I was surprised/delighted when I saw that she released her latest LP in February, produced by Mitch Dane. I was even more delighted when I read her declaration that this was going to be a bold record about vulnerability in the face of personal circumstances.
I was also a little worried. Emotional vulnerability is a pretty sorry cliche these days, seven years after Katy Perry popularized prepubescent reflections on being a firework– a glossy Disney Channel vision of rising from the ashes of one’s troubles. It made for a pretty Instagram caption, but it’s trite simplicity was insulting to the complexity of real struggles and real heartbreak. Songs like Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper” and Rachel Plattern’s “Fight Song” normalized a larger-than-life archetype of feminine strength that purported to solve the lows of life with impossibly mythological grandeur.
Enter the opening loop of “Can’t Curse the Free”. It’s slow, it’s slinky, and it’s instantly memorable. A warbling keyboard line converges with a clean bass line, a pipe organ, and a rattling snare. Jetty croons, “You want to destroy me / You don’t ever want me / To climb any higher than my lowest plateaus”. Faint guitar licks and a drumbeat march faster and faster like a heartbeat, as we hear visceral lines like, “Drowning in your desert winds / You want me to feel the sting on my skin / The stains on my skin, the chains on my skin”, and “You want me thirsting / Trying to drown me in my wickedness / Like a desert rose in the rain”. The juxtaposition of desert and water, which will surface again later, is an inventive way to capture the rush of lost love, and the memories in its wake.
I honestly want to fill another paragraph with lines from this song alone; I don’t know how much of this relates to Jetty’s own life, past or present, or how much is metaphor, but it makes for striking poetry. It’s dripping with sadness, swagger, and sensuality. It’s a kiss-off to a former lover that’s tinged with regret. It’s a war chant of fierce individuality that’s haunted by the lost beauty of an estranged bond. It speaks power to the ego, but it doesn’t let the heart get away with easy answers. This might be the breakup song that makes me enjoy breakup songs again. It’s certainly a hell of a way to kick off the album.
The first half of this album is just one powerhouse after another. After clapping for “Can’t Curse the Free”, I was pulled right into “Queen of the Universe”, and found myself singing along. The third track, “Take Me to the Mountain”, was released first as a single, and it’s hard to decide whether that’s a testament to the song’s massive chorus, or a slight to the foot-stomping “Queen of the Universe”. They’re both as good, if not better, than the smoldering title track.
“Queen” puts down a prideful antagonist, kept in time by drumming that is joyfully organic, never satisfied to stay with any one pattern. Paul Ekburg recorded the percussion, and he, along with Matthew Pierson (bass), Steve Mason (guitar), and Charlie Mason (piano/synth), add vital layers to “Queen of the Universe” and just about every other track on this album. “Somebody call the preacher, the teacher, the medicine man,” warns Jetty, as the studio band lays it down, “None of us want your blood on our hands.” Her alt-country side bursts out, loud and clear.
“Take Me to the Mountain” opens with a reverberating string-plucking, before a flock of violins flies through the soaring chorus. Jetty’s voice is as rich as the earth she sings about, digging into her desires in the face of loneliness and “hard times”. “When will this fever burn out / Will they see the smoke?”, she sings slowly, drawing out her visceral longing, especially when the instrumentation is starting to peak, and we hear, “Wanna dance in your river / Feel the water rush over me”. As the final bongo drum fades out, I realized what I was reminded of– the Song of Solomon from the Christian Bible. Jetty’s tapped into a sparse, elemental imagery that goes perfectly with her influences.
The other tracks don’t immediately stand out with the flair of the first three songs. Other shades of Jetty’s vision emerge as we go deeper into the album. That resonant voice leaves a particular shine on “Coast to Coast”. The opening strumming is fairly standard for 2000s/2010s folk, until you hear the xylophone in the background, and instead of the same old rustic browns you start to see the chords splashing in the deep purple of the album cover. Her voice hangs onto notes with fullness and decisiveness on songs like “Another Town” and “Born to Rise”. An echoing guitar intro sets “Still Gotta Fight It” apart, especially when it’s accentuated by that booming kick drum. When Jetty wavers a little when she sings, “I fear the wolves / They are licking their lips,” it goes perfectly with the music.
The final trilogy of songs– “Nose Dive”, “In The Garden”, and “The River”– are all slower ballads. “I’ve got doubts in my hair and I wish I could feel / Your ghosts in these winds,” she laments on “The River”. Across the album, “Can’t Curse the Free” and “Take Me To the Mountain” get the best lines, easily– lines like “And you wish that you could soak it up / You wish that you could stomp it out / You wish this wasn’t something you had to cry about”, from “In The Garden”, just aren’t as memorable– but the last three songs form a fitting encapsulation of the doubts and regrets that are on Jetty’s mind, and her quiet resolution to face and overcome them.
Ultimately, it’s the first three songs that have my heart, but as a whole, Jetty’s put out my favorite album from her so far. She’s been open on social media about the personal struggles that led to a lot of the songwriting on “Can’t Curse the Free”, and unlike more famous people who have exploited vulnerability to sell marketable wish fulfillment, Jetty use her art to tell her melancholy, passionate story to anyone willing to lend an ear. Check it out on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, and most other digital hotspots!
BEST TRACKS: “Can’t Curse the Free”, “Queen of the Universe”, “Take Me To the Mountain”