Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Sugar Tree
From Jay Farrar to Janis Ian, most singer-songwriters working Amy Rigby's trad-rock turf get the bad feelings they're begging for. Soft in the head, big in the ego, or both, their steady beats and practiced fills sound as soggy as they are. But on 1996's Diary of a Mod Housewife, and 1998's Middlescence, the hurt, sass, and flat-out Rust Belt honesty the Pittsburgh-born, New York-fledged Rigby put into her singing came off so smart and decent that only an alt-rock whiner or guy on the make could have failed to sympathize.

After a tour de force that anatomized a dying marriage and a follow-up that redefined midlife crisis for the young at heart, The Sugar Tree marks Rigby's relocation from Brooklyn to Nashville by proving she doesn't need a conceptual hatrack to hang songs from--it's stronger than Middlescence, which would have caused a sensation if it hadn't been overshadowed by Mod Housewife. Rigby is still a divorcee without money struggling for respect and a little nookie while staring down the big 4-0. But that's deep background now. In good Nashville fashion, she devotes herself to surveying love from a hooky array of emotional angles as local alt guru Brad Jones shapes a production that's no more avant than the Music Row standard, but a lot looser and rangier.

Granted, most of the new album could have sprung from a single affair that quickly descended from "You made a lover from a burnt-out wife" to "You're never around so I can't make you leave." In fact, sexists might call its highly un-Nashvillian resistance to sentimentality an attitude problem. Shy but raring to go or rationalizing a relationship that only works when they're lying down, envying his balls or too chicken to haul his clothes off to the Salvation Army, she's always the sharp-tongued sweety of "Cynically Yours": "I your loving [blank], take you, [insert name here], because frankly I'm just too tired to look around anymore." Finding the life in a played-out musical mode is miracle enough. Doing it with happier songs would be positively godlike--and nothing less than Amy Rigby deserves.

Spin, Dec. 2000