Graded on a Curve:
Anna Connolly,
After Thoughts

While debut records sometimes come with substantial background info, this is especially true of the first release from Anna Connolly, in large part because it’s not the byproduct of youthful energies but accumulated life experience, with ties to the DC punk scene and the city’s record stores. And yet, After Thoughts avoids the familiar vibe of music made by older, often jaded players as it consistently packs an emotional wallop. Punk in spirit rather than style, the assurance of Connolly’s songwriting is felt, the candor striking, the delivery sharp and focused; it’s out now on vinyl in a high-quality edition of 300 through her own imprint Runaway Girl Records.

In the early ’80s, Anna Connolly moved with her mother and sister from Los Angeles to Washington, DC, where the siblings, already in tune with the punk scene, became part of the same burgeoning developments in the nation’s capital. Minor Threat practiced in the basement of their house, while Anna befriended Cristina Martinez (later of Boss Hog) and Jennifer Herrema (destined to become half of Royal Trux).

If the name Connolly rings a bell in relation to DC punk, that’s because Anna’s sister Cynthia is the photographer-author responsible for assembling Banned in DC, which endures as the crucial historical document of the city’s ’80s hardcore scene. Anna’s part in this narrative might’ve made less of a splash, but she was in no way a casual bystander, touring the Midwest with Minor Threat when she was 14 and landing a job at Record and Tape Ltd/ the Book Annex, which later became Olsson’s Books and Records.

If you think working in a record shop is no big deal, that’s fine, but may I ask you to please stop for a second and consider which website you’re reading? In terms of DC punk history, record stores were a vital part; on the back cover of Dischord’s seminal DC hardcore document Flex Your Head is a short list of special thanks, with one of the recipients Skip Groff, the owner of the legendary Rockville, MD shop Yesterday and Today Records.

And I’d like to say thanks to Connolly, whose job at Olsson’s evolved into a role as a music buyer there. In the late ’80s-early ’90s, the store was a must-visit whenever I’d make the roughly hourlong trek to DC with friends to see a live show, and Connolly’s position as Olsson’s first buyer of what she describes as “pop” CDs surely played a role in its importance as a destination.

Her background is covered in greater depth in recent articles by WTOP and the Washington City Paper (good reads both), but I’d like to delve into the music on After Thoughts, which is as strong as its backstory is interesting. Worth mentioning in this context is that she didn’t pick up a guitar until much later in life, after having kids and getting divorced. The resulting blend of freshness and maturity, and of bright energy and dark elements, is distinctive.

As mentioned above, the punk influence is felt rather than a matter of style, with the music springing from a tough singer-songwriter zone. The enlightening press materials for the LP offer spiritual ties to the work of Leonard Cohen, Conor Oberst, Elliott Smith, and Jen Cloher, connections that are validated through listening. Connolly often performs alone, and indeed there’s a cool solo version of After Thoughts’ opener “Drink Up My Love” on her Bandcamp page, though on the LP it lands a bigger immediate punch via bass, drums, and keyboards.

Connolly’s vocals and the directness of her lyrics remain at the forefront, which is the case throughout the record, even when the songs swing into the more upbeat territory, as on the jangly and rhythmically driving “White Flag,” where her voice, pretty but full-bodied, soars. However, “Stars” is a good study in Connolly’s guitar abilities as the music launches from a solid trio foundation. From there, “Max on the Black Sea” scales back to just vocals, guitar, and viola.

There’s a touch of the folky in the song, though After Thoughts never really fits into a neo-folk mold. Instead, the balance of the record is pop-rooted, but serious. Again, the singer-songwriter aura tangible, but never hand-me-down. “Starik Kozlodoev” does throw a nice curve, being a cover of a song by Russian band Akvarium that’s fingerpicked and sung in Russian; Connolly studied the language in college (she has two master’s degrees) and lived in the country for a time. The track opens with radio static and a sampled passage of another Akvarium song.

Did I say that Connolly’s approach here is serious? I did. For the most part, she delves into intimate relationships, with love songs not the platter du jour but rather explorations of tough memories, unpleasantries, and sometimes downright ugliness, all of which can transpire when two people get close; side two’s “21” is sorta the thematic apex, its chorus a statement made to her by a post-divorce ex-boyfriend that’s unfeeling nature is initially startling and then just lingers as harsh.

Suitably, “21” is amongst the boldest rock moments on After Thoughts, and it’s immediately contrasted with the ruminative solo strummer “1% Evil,” where the only added instrumentation is trombone. “Jewels” begins with similar comportment before integrating some baroque atmosphere and then full-on loud rock bang. The song ends up back where it starts (in a purely instrumental sense), impressively without faltering into the formulaic. If not the most rocking, “Three Times” closes the LP with perhaps its most fully-formed full-band thrust.

But wait. There are two non-vinyl bonuses, which is particularly notable as “Half Gram” is roughly the equal of anything on the wax, though the sharpness of its youthful recollection does offer a somewhat unique feel (and a gripping narrative), making its status as an extra understandable. But no worries, as it and “Copper,” a nifty cover of a song by Shellac, are found on the accompanying full download.

Speaking of Shellac, Bob Weston cut the vinyl lacquer of what’s clearly a labor of love, from the quality of the pressing (courtesy of Pallas in Germany) to the two-sided lyric sheet hand-designed by Connolly. This stands apart from a lot of vinyl releases these days, which are just as obviously (perfectly fine, and sometimes quite necessary) vessels of career sustainability.

By extension, underscoring After Thoughts’ success is that, unlike a lot of debut recordings, it doesn’t register as a guarded introductory prelude to further endeavors. Instead, Connolly puts herself completely into it/ out there (and thusly, into the listener’s consciousness), and in a way that makes it feel entirely possible that she’ll never make another record. But hey, I really hope she does.

Even as she didn’t do it all herself, it seems right to list the assisting personnel last. DC vets Joe Lally (Fugazi, Messthetics) and Eddie Janney (Untouchables, The Faith, Rights of Spring, etc.) are here for a track each, on bass and guitar respectively, as is Numbers Station drummer Stefan Bauschmid, but a deeper impact is made by Teething Veils violist Hannah Burris, Slavic Soul Party multi-instrumentalist Don Godwin, and all-around DC MVP Devin Ocampo, who with Godwin co-produced with Connolly.

None of this added flavor detracts from the coherent, at times uncomfortable, but never despairing statement After Thoughts makes. A couple of tracks are less effective than the gist, but the set contains no stumbles, and is overall a rousing success for Anna Connolly. If punk-fueled singer-songwriter robustness is at all your thing, don’t delay in checking this out, for the LP’s easy availability won’t be a constant.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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