Road Rules

Guitarist Patty Larkin is a tour de force.

In a way, she's still busking for the audiences who applaud on à gogo. The album paints Larkin as saucy, playful and confident as hell, tackling guitar styles with a dexterity that at times creates the illusion that she's being backed by a full band, or at least another guitarist. "Wolf at the Door" is a bluesy number colored by the metallic warble of a slide guitar that would probably make Ani DiFranco wish she'd had Larkin as a babysitter, and "Banish Misfortune/Open Hand" is an instrumental, classically styled piece that doesn't suffer from a lack of vocals. The album includes quiet pronouncements (the meditative "Don't," in which Larkin manages to work in a statement about girls on guitars -- they can play, already -- and a Fabio reference); melodic soulfulness ("Dear Diary"); a rocking narrative ("Who Holds Your Hand"); and moments where Larkin diverges from the stringent singer-songwriter mold to include looped vocal samples ("The Book I'm Not Reading").

Beyond serving as an introduction to Larkin's larger body of work (she's released four recordings on the High Street/Windham Hill label and three for Philo/Rounder), à gogois like an auditory scrapbook, a nod to the troubadour's lifestyle. The seamless way in which a track from a show in Ann Arbor, Michigan, sits next to one from Brunswick, Maine, is a reminder that each of those shows had a life of its own, and that almost as soon as the lights dimmed on one stage, they were ready to come up on another. As with the tour that wound up being chronicled on à gogo, the extensive promotional tour that followed it and the limited one she's on now with fellow guitarist Willy Porter, the distances that lie between shows are filled with plenty of musical fodder. Larkin is close to finishing production on a new, as-yet-untitled studio album to be released in July, and she says many of the tunes were inspired by people and places she encountered while touring.

"My songs, for the most part, do start out on the road," she says. "I usually finish them when I get home, if I have an extended period of three weeks or so when I'll be there. I'll see something -- a person, maybe, a snippet of a relationship -- and it will stick with me."

Larkin, who holds an undergraduate degree in English as well as graduate and post-graduate degrees from Boston's Berklee College of Music, has upheld a reputation as a gifted singer and lyricist as well as a songwriter. Her voice is that of a storyteller's, elastic enough to meet the emotional demands of each individual piece. It is feminine and tough; a growl in the appropriate place or a well-placed whisper in another prevents it from being merely pretty. And though the lyrical themes Larkin broaches may not be new -- introspection, loss, the craving for authenticity, the craving for love -- she explores them through an associative narrative style that reminds us why even the best writers always seem to relay the same old stories: because they're true.

"The new album is definitely full of story songs," she says. "In the past, I've been kind of using this stream-of-consciousness style to write my lyrics, but I've tried to be a lot more disciplined this time around. The lyrics are tighter. That kind of goes along with the whole new album. In many ways, it's more tailored."

Larkin recorded the forthcoming album in her Cape Cod studio with the help of co-producer Bette Warner (who also assisted on Perishable Fruit) and Wittman. Though the recording will take some more traditional approaches to instrumentation -- drum sound, for example, will be live and real -- it also features more experiments with samples, looping and computers, subtle as they may be. "When we were recording, we kept saying, 'What would Beck do?'" she says, laughing. "I really like what he did on Odelay, though I think it's pretty different from what I do. I have a friend who's a sax player, and I wound up sampling one of her recordings. It gives a new vibe to the sounds, which is exciting. If it turns into the kind of electronic machine that it can be, I'm not interested. But if it can maintain some organic character, it's just another tool for music.

"I could see it going too far, though," she adds. "At some point I'll probably want to sing into a tin can and record it and loop it. Then I will know that it's time to go out into a field and just sing."

And though Larkin's style is often characterized by a fairly familiar approach that lends itself to bluesy, folk categorizations, strands of worldliness have often entered the equation. Jazz flourishes (by-products of her emphasis on the genre in school), rootsy touches and even Celtic flavors can be heard in the shadows of her more straightforward stylings. The recent deluge of Grammy awards bestowed on artists with cross-cultural sounds is a good indicator that the world might be ready for a girl from Wisconsin to wail on sounds that aren't limited to North American borders. It seems like perfect timing for what she describes as an eclectic new album.

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