Patti Scialfa’s Passionate Gamble

You know how, when you first put on new music, you don’t really pay attention to the words, or even the shape of the songs? You just listen to what it sounds like: get the general feel. When I first put on Patti Scialfa’s new one, Play It As It Lays, what registered was this catchy, in-the-groove rock&roll and the voice of a woman with something to say. As the songs churned by, the band was clearly having a great time slipping from rhythm to rhythm, finding the hooks, remembering old tricks and inventing new ones. And the voice — throaty, determined–kept insisting there was a story to tell, and it mattered. What the story was, I had no idea. And I wasn’t particularly anxious to find out. I liked the heft of the music, the purposefulness. Meaning could come later.

You know how, when you play new music a second time, parts of it jump out? Like landmarks, they locate where you are, even if it isn’t totally clear how you got there or where you’re going. On the opening cut, Scialfa’s singing about looking for Elvis, looking for inspiration; I got that much from the chorus. The tune slips forward like a kind of modernized country blues, dense with echoing voices. The slide guitar, the harmonica, put you on a backcountry dirt road, but the slinky beat makes it sound like the interstate isn’t far off. “Work a little harder,” she’s calling by the song’s bridge, “if you want my trust.” Who’s she talking to? And why does it sound like she’s found her man, but that’s just a beginning?

It was on the second cut that I got my bearings: actually, at one specific moment. Starts with a nice, laid-back beat; then that sweet but cutting lead voice; and then a big female chorus comes in — “cry, cry, cry”–and Scialfa sings what almost seems like an aside: “Like any women would.” And just before she finishes saying that, the chorus behind her goes: “doo-lang doo-lang doo-lang.” Yea, that doo-lang: right off the old Chiffons’ hit, “He’s So Fine.”

It’s a straight quote, clear as day, calling up the whole early-sixties girl-group mix of tender and tough. Stops you right in your tracks, and you listen for it when the chorus comes round again. In the space of a line, the song travels from big, declarative, soul music sadness–“cry cry cry”–to that sigh of recognition: “Like any woman would.” But when that’s followed by the Chiffons with all its memories and associations, it carves out a whole other turf: Scialfa’s own. This is music that knows its past. And steps right up and acknowledges it — not for nostalgia’s sake, but to place itself in that tradition. In a half second, without time to think, you feel yourself lifted up, reminded where the music (and you) came from, and plunked back down in an adult landscape: sly and, at the same time, dead serious. It’s like a woman who says, with a wink, “I’ve got some history. And we’ve got some work to do.”

You know how you try to clear a little space once music has grabbed your attention? Never mind the lyric sheet just yet, or who’s playing what. But it’s earned a closer listen. You start separating out individual cuts and the details within those cuts. So, the break on the doo-lang song is sung by a bluesy voice, not Scialfa’s, that sounds like it comes from an era before rock&roll. As if we were on a search, and it was taking us back in time. And the song ends with the repeated circling of a needle on an old vinyl record. How do lovers make each other cry? Over and over again.

Seems that backcountry dirt road leads to a town called Heartbreak. On the next cut, anyway, that’s where the singer says she’s living. The tune’s got this “Heard-It-Through-the-Grapevine” groove thanks to a rhythm section so deep I had to sneak a look at the credits: producer Steve Jordan on drums, Clifford Carter on keyboards, and the unbelievable Willie Weeks on bass. Their laid-back pocket perfectly matches Scialfa’s slurred voice, giving her time to talk about stuff she’s now saying goes all the way back to Eve and Adam. Then, modulating up, she mentions this dream she’s been having: a guy swinging a sledge hammer against cold stone. She doesn’t have to say any more; the dark beat does that. If we wonder what he’s breaking, we just got to remember the name of her town.

You know how part of you doesn’t want to work a little harder? I mean, to figure out how to be with someone: the fights, the tears, the late night talks. But also when you’re listening to music: you just want to float with it. Scialfa gets that. Little conga beat, light organ riff (almost a calliope), and we’re into a Latin shuffle. If her man doesn’t want to work for her trust, that’s fine. Play around with other women, she sings; play at being tough; play at some high-wire circus drama. Just don’t bet on her staying. She’ll slide out of the picture, thanks, quick and free as that conga. You want the pleasures of the surface? The cut after “Play Around” kicks off with this piercing electric guitar. (I sneak another look: Nils Lofgren.) And suddenly we’re into a soul grind: a strut so thick with sex it sounds sticky. Again, Scialfa acknowledges where she’s learned her moves: Stax horns morphing into electronica and a tip to that old Archie Bell song, “Tighten Up.” But this time she invents her own “doo-lang.” She has the back-up singers break down the glories of the bedroom into simple, hilarious shorthand: “sugar sugar sugar baby bang bang touch.”

You know how certain records have a through-line? Maybe you don’t. These days, we do a lot of the sequencing ourselves: download a single — put it on a mix tape with some others, or hit “random” — and get jazzed by the changes. We’re the dj, the author. Scialfa’s songs have enough great hooks and beats that you could pull them and use them that way. But at some point, I realized this wasn’t about singles. Or being single, for that matter. It’s more about making connections. Connections between people and between songs. That’s the land she’s traveling through, and we probably should have known it from that first Chiffons’ quote: a land where the past hooks up with the present, where lovers hook up (or try to), where one song hooks up with the next.

That means you start listening differently. So, when a cut opens with an acoustic guitar, and Scialfa sings, “Oh — such an ordinary start,” it comes as a kind of confirmation when the slap beat kicks in, and the extended rhyme turns out to be: “for a day that ends with its intent to break your heart.” The song’s called “The Word,” and she paraphrases “You Win Again,” the Hank Williams country blues: “The word is out//I’ve been defeated.” Then for the centerpiece, she lifts stanza and melody from that weird, girl-group tune that sounded like an old English ballad, “Sally Go Round the Roses.” We’re in a garden of haunted guitars. Scialfa’s twenty-first century voice promises, “There’s nothing in those roses that can hurt you now,” and some ancient voice echoes in agreement. But it’s as if each picked note drew blood.

In a funny way, you could call Play It As It Lays a resistance record. A grown woman tries to resist caring so much. The band falls into a slow groove and just lets it go for a while. Enter Scialfa, sounding a little older, maybe even wiser: “I could have had it bad for you// and that’s not good.” It’s not good to pay this much attention. Better to do that shuffle-off, or that sex-strut, than to get into all the hard work of loving. Once you hear the record as a kind of spiral, circling into its subject, connections begin to grow on their own. The soil’s so fertilized–so harrowed back and forth with old songs and new–that Scialfa barely has to plant the seed, and great needy blossoms appear. “It’s just that your bed looked so pretty,” she begins–and never finishes the thought. “All right,” she sings, “all right. It’s understood.”

By then, even an up-tempo tribute to a woman racecar driver–all innocent fun like a Beach Boys song–had me waiting for the pay-off. “Run run run” goes the chorus, the beat banging along, and then the singer points out that a great driver gets great not by luck, of course, but through “miles of sweat, hard labor, and skill.” There we are! Back on that same track, circling. And if you want to see the victory flag, you gotta work a little harder; stand and deliver.

The cd climaxes with the title track. As author Joan Didion copped the title of her novel, “Play It As It Lays,” out of the casinos–leave my bet where it is, thanks–Scialfa steals it back. “Sad song on the radio,” she starts, and after putting us on an empty road (maybe that first dirt road?), she adds: “you know the one.” We do. It’s the one–the thousand and one–she’s been referring to all along. And this cut, from the familiar thump of its first beat to the straining tone of her voice, is that song on the radio. It’s almost like she’s singing along to some famous and unknown ballad. “Play It As It Lays” doesn’t try to resolve the hurt that couples do to each other. “You surrender// You confess// You make amends// You get undressed// And call it a night.” The shudder of Scialfa’s voice on the last note sounds both forgiveness and horror at the routines we fall into. The heart breaks; the wheel keeps spinning. To play it as it lays is to stick with your bet — and it isn’t play at all.

After the grand title song, Scialfa adds a coda. It has the simple melody of a nursery rhyme. “I’ve been down your black ladder// I’ve been down your dark stairs// Tell me that our love matters// Tell me that you care.” Barely two minutes, it lasts just long enough to circle back and reverse roles. So, the last line becomes: “I’ll tell you darlin’ that I still care.” It’s a kind of pledge of allegiance, sad and strong.

You know how some music seems to call on you to dig a little deeper, to listen again? On the last cut, the singer half-whispers, “Tell me all my work is done.” But she knows it isn’t. And by now, so do we. Because that, finally, is what this rich, compelling music insists on: that human beings never quite get it right, and continue to need each other, and that it matters. Turns out that, yea, Play It As It Lays could be called a resistance record. But it doesn’t resist caring too much; it resists giving up.

DANIEL WOLFF is a poet and author of the excellent biography of the great Sam Cooke, You Send Me, as well as the recent collection of Ernest Withers’ photographs The Memphis Blues Again. Wolff’s Grammy-nominated essay on Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers is one of the highlights of CounterPunch’s collection on art, music and sex: Serpents in the Garden. Wolff also wrote the text for the collection of Ernest Wither’s photographs in Negro League Baseball. His latest book is 4th of July/Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land (Bloomsbury USA) For the past year, he and director Jonathan Demme have been working on a documentary about post-Katrina New Orleans. He can be reached at:





Daniel Wolff’s most recent books are Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913 and How to Become an American: a History of Immigration, Assimilation and Loneliness.