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Some-String Different

Singer-Songwriter-Guitarist Patty Larkin Banishes Drums for a Pleasing Sonic Experiment

September 23, 1997|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Patty Larkin has recorded six albums since her debut release "Step Into the Light" 10 years ago. All are worthy showcases of her singing, songwriting and guitar-playing, but none compares to her latest, "Perishable Fruit" (High Street/Windham Hill). This time, Larkin felt compelled to experiment, to try for something a bit unusual.

That something is a drum-less sound-scape. Larkin says the idea was to get her backing musicians to pluck, thump, strum or otherwise coax percussive sounds out of a variety of stringed instruments.

One player tapped on a 10-string bass while another used mallets and slides on de-tuned lap steel guitars. Shakers were shaken. Hand-drumming on a mandolin and hammering a dulcimer yielded gentler rhythmic textures. Whether recalling the moody atmospherics of Daniel Lanois and Ry Cooder or the earthier, pop- and folk-based feel of Shawn Colvin and Tracy Chapman, the result is rich and varied.

Larkin will perform solo--on vocals, bazouki, acoustic and electric guitars--Thursday night at the Coach House, opening for Michael Hedges.

In addition to handling the production, writing and lead vocals on "Perishable Fruit," Larkin contributes her chops on the bazouki and National, lap steel, electric, slide and acoustic guitars.

"Yeah, I guess I went a little string crazy," she said by phone from her home in Massachusetts. "The music I've been listening to lately, like [jazz-based vocalist] Cassandra Wilson's latest album [the Grammy-nominated "New Moon Daughter"], leans more toward the experimental end of the spectrum. I do like that kind of curiosity-seeking.

So she invited her favorite players to join her for an adventure at her home recording studio on Cape Cod.

"Everyone shared their thoughts," Larkin said, "but it was [percussionist] Ben Wittman who really wound up facing the most challenges. Initially, I played him a demo recording of the songs, and then asked him, 'What would you play on this?' He came up with so many good ideas, but more than anything else, it's his skill at playing the lap steel [guitar] in totally rhythmic ways that amazes me still."

Larkin's musical education, spurred by continuous encouragement from both grandmothers, has included jazz training at Boston's Berklee College of Music and years spent honing her craft in Celtic and rock bands. A love of classical, blues and roots music informs her eclectic style, which has never been easy to classify.

While "Perishable Fruit" ventures into new sonic terrain, the songs' themes vary only slightly from those on previous collections. Their introspective, often imagery-laden lyrics expose the ups and downs of relationships ("You and I," "Heart") and the despair of physical and emotional abuse ("Angels Wings"). The songs resonate with understanding.

"Ya know, Ernest Hemingway once said, 'When you're writing, you have to tell the truth--even if it's fiction,"' Larkin said. "I think what makes songs or stories or poems so compelling are those little truisms that come out. That feeling that, 'Yes, this situation could be true, even it's not.' "

She said the new album reaches a more universal plane than its predecessors. "I hope it does anyway," she said. "In particular, 'Red Accordion,' about moving on with your life after adversity, to recapture that spirit of celebration, is something that most people can relate to."

Larkin's love of creative wordplay and metaphors shows throughout the new album. The title "Perishable Fruit," for example, works on two levels. "It symbolizes the album's seize-the-moment spirit . . . of the immediacy of capturing a creative spark at a particular point in time," she explained. And it also refers to the organic makeup of the music, that is, as a delicacy with a limited shelf life.

"I believe good music can be succulent and tasty, but it has to be marketed for consumption," Larkin said. "If you don't do a good job of that, it can sit on shelves and rot. This needs to be digested right away."

* Patty Larkin appears Thursday with headliner Michael Hedges at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $19.50-$21.50. (714) 496-8930.

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