Graded on a Curve:
Debby Schwartz,
A Garden of My Own

Debby Schwartz is properly appraised as a veteran musician, a singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist combining broader than usual range with a fairly low profile. As part of the small but potent roster of the NYC/Connecticut-based Twin Lakes Records that might change; her new LP A Garden of My Own offers 11 strong selections in a contemporary electric folk vein.

I was familiar with the output of Debby Schwartz long before recognizing her by name, having crossed paths with her band The Aquanettas roughly a quarter century ago. Flaunting a handle reminiscent of the B-52s, their first and sole full-length Love with a Proper Stranger sported a sound comparable to the Bangles if they’d been from Hoboken and didn’t hit the big time; appearing in early 1990, it was a thorough byproduct of the decade prior.

As issued by Nettwerk/I.R.S. Records the disc never found an appropriate audience. My exposure to The Aquanettas came through a casual acquaintance rather than a personal copy, and after giving it a fresh spin via the resources of the internet I’m bluntly kinda bummed I didn’t pick it up, though I don’t recall ever seeing it in the racks back then.

If I never stumbled across Love with a Proper Stranger, until very recently I didn’t even know Schwartz’s Wrongs of Passage existed. Released in ’98 on Joan Osborne’s Womanly Hips label, it seems to have fallen through the cracks, and I still haven’t heard it. I do know her bass and vocal work in Patrick Gubler’s post-Tower Recordings outfit P.G. Six however; it sets the table for A Garden of My Own quite nicely.

While less experimental than P.G. Six can be on occasion, Schwartz does share with Gubler a palpable Brit-folk jones, a close commonality being the fleet digits of one Bert Jansch both solo and as part of Pentangle. In fact, Gubler lends his services to a handful of tracks here, and he’s far from the only noteworthy contributor. Indeed, the album was engineered and produced by Ivan Julian, estimable ex member of Richard Hell and the Voidoids.

Also on board are bassist Peter Stuart and violinist/violist Katie Gentile of Hoboken’s Special Pillow, he formerly of ‘80s garage rockers The Tryfles and she a factor in ‘90s NY indie supergroup Run On. Plus, there’s in-demand violinist Claudia Chopek (Norah Jones, Moby, Springsteen, Ryan Adams, The Ladybug Transistor, The Gramercy Arms), Bongos/The Health & Happiness Show string-bender James Mastro, and fellow P.G. Six-ers Robert Dennis and Bob Bannister on drums and guitar, the latter also previously of Fire in the Kitchen and Tono-Bungay.

All this input differs in equivalence, and A Garden of My Own is a multifaceted record. Along with the warmth of her voice, the opening cut wastes no time in revealing Schwartz’s fingerpicking dexterity, those well-matched aspects accentuated by the edginess of Gentile’s string work. Near the end, Bannister’s guitar integrates just a hint of psychedelia into what’s essentially a singer-songwriter context.

“Hummingbird” delivers a robust beginning, and following track “Ambivalent” only furthers the intersection of nimble picking and sturdy bowing as the vocalizing continues to establish an appealing mixture of power and control. Schwartz frankly conjures the attractive warmth of late-‘60s folkies gone introspective; totally accessible but too tough to really be described as pretty, her uninhibited flow lacks in cutesiness or the coy.

A bonus element comes via Stuart’s bass; subtle throughout, he grows gradually more assertive toward the song’s adroit close. Retaining focus while broadening the spectrum is the terrific “Dreaming New York City in the Middle of LA,” which suitably proffers a blend of late-‘60s West Coast folk-rock with backing voices lending a smidge of pop as Mastro’s fuzz guitar nods to Nuggets-style psych. Additionally, a few licks are suggestive of the pedal steel, an undercurrent of country-rock folded into the rich batter.

Notably absent is the diminishing factor of appropriation. To elaborate, Schwartz’s lyrics mention reading the poetry of key Beat figure Gregory Corso, the folkish surroundings complimenting the reference and easily avoiding the unearned cool of callow namedropping. Moving ahead, Stuart and Gentile provide heft to the intertwining guitar atmospherics of “London;” while a lot of non-topical, inward-looking folk both old and new produces a vibe conducive to late-night listening, up to this point the album radiates a decided aura of bright morning sunshine.

Schwartz’s skill as a player has been accurately likened to Nick Drake, but to my ear “London” recalls Bradley’s Barn by the Beau Brummells (coincidentally an act Stuart has performed with), as Gentile’s jittery catgut freak-out near the end reinforces the contemporary design. Furthermore, “Arise” adds Dennis’ drums to the equation as Chopek momentarily steps into the picture on violin, the sum scoring a full-on folk-rock-psych merger, especially once Gubler starts stepping on his effects pedal.

With “Satan, You Brought Me Down” (which also serves as the title cut to Schwartz’s Twin Lakes EP of earlier this year) she goes it acoustic and truly solo, along the way earning her associations to Neil Young and without sounding particularly beholden to the guy. Landing nearer to Jansch is the stripped-down intensity of “Bulldozer,” the disc’s lengthiest number and a standout of unstrained emotion.

Bringing a new sonic wrinkle is “All to Become Somebody,” the employment of Gubler’s hurdy-gurdy oozing a non-overwrought trippiness that’s a tad remindful of Kendra Smith’s post-Dream Syndicate material. It’s an ambiance extending into “My Hope,” though Schwartz’s impassioned vocals give the record one of its most striking moments.

“That’s What Johnny Told Me on the Train” again reverts to solo mode, the fingerpicking brisk yet weighty as she cozies up to the coffeehouse. With one exception, it’s here that the singing comes closest to traditional prettiness; saving the title track for last, Schwartz remains alone with her axe for “Sitting in a Garden of My Own,” her voice emitting a slight but engaging similarity to Barbara Manning.

Schwartz’s diversity is impressive; even more so is the LP’s cohesiveness as it moves from the fuller environments of its first half and into solo territory, the trim duration assured and full of personality. The compositions collected here do give the impression of spanning across a period of years rather than resulting from a single spurt of productivity.

This isn’t necessarily a fault, though it would be nice to hear what Schwartz and a handful of collaborators could solidify in a relatively concise timeframe. In the meantime, A Garden of My Own is a welcome addition to the current musical landscape from an artist of admirable perseverance and growth.


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