There's always a slight arrogance dogging even the best singer/songwriters. After all, it takes at least a trifling of ego to think anthologizing your life holds enough intrinsic interest to garner audience approval. There's an even greater air of arrogance attached to surname-dropping rock figures -- often, those who ditch their last names in hope of making the glitteratti honor roll have a few issues to work out in their songwriting.
Lois Maffeo outgrows both flavors of arrogance on The Union Themes. Teaming up with Brendan Canty, longtime Fugazi drummer and sometime producer, Maffeo both reclaims her surname and explores new horizons on this album. Sticking to the folkie-grrrl stylings found on her K Records albums, released simply under the name Lois, Maffeo's partnership with Canty finds the songwriter's fare finding broader themes as well as new wrinkles, giving her acoustic strumming and smoky voice their most impact to date.
On her self-described first "100-spercent fictional album," Maffeo's knack for fly-paper catchy vocal melodies finally has something solid to stick to. Turning outward, Maffeo finds a spectrum of themes showing a marked step up from her previous work. You can sense it in the grim resignation of "Being Blind," which touches on post-relationship reflections, in "You Love Your Wounds," which deceptively cloaks a bitter shot at self-made martyrs, and in the poignant loneliness of an elderly widow's voice in "Hollow Reed." There's a whole world outside of Maffeo, and for the first time, she seems to have realized it.
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Canty -- who also earns a production credit on The Union Themes -- brings in a stable of tricks to spice up Maffeo's at-times humdrum singy-singy, strummy-strummy. Tossing in fragments of everything from electric guitar to mellotron, his flair for accenting Maffeo's arrangements, as well as his ability not to lose the more subtle aspects of her guitar work in the mix, provides a hard-edged contrast to Maffeo's more elemental songwriting. Showing blessed restraint, Canty's additions never crowd out Maffeo's work, stepping in momentarily to simply give songs an extra push. From the vibrant guitar hook in "How I Came to Know," to "Give Faith," where a tinkling piano provides Maffeo's guitar work with a ledge to perch on, Canty never tries to exceed his supporting role.
While Maffeo and Canty's brand of indiefied folk still resides far from more universal styles, The Union Themes steps up Maffeo's songwriting presence. Finally with something to say and the vehicle to move it, she offers an interesting ride, if not an entirely unforgettable album.