Maia Sharp, Echo (2009, Crooked Crown Records)
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I distinctly recall the first time I heard Maia Sharp sing. It was the summer of 1997, and I was driving down a steep hill in Steelton, PA, on the way to the regular Tuesday night acoustic gig my buddy Jim and I did at the late, great Flight Deck in Middletown. I was thinking about the night’s set when a voice came through my radio (tuned to WXPN), telling a fugitive tale:

I left the town that was my future
To ride along with you
You said, “I’m going to California”
So I was going to California, too
You get a thrill from causing trouble
Life has offered nothing more
So we kept it to the back roads
Looking for an easy score
I need this to be love

The lyrics, as I could make them out then, were immediately compelling, but even more compelling was the voice—definitely female, but with a character that I, to this day, have trouble describing to people. I wind up explaining it away as a thickness, a sense of density, something with weight and sexiness and beauty. The song, “I Need This to be Love,” kicked off her self-titled debut album, one of my favorite records of that year, and one I return to regularly.

The dozen ensuing years have seen Sharp raise her profile with a number of interesting collaborations and covers. Bonnie Raitt put three of her songs on her fine Souls Alike album; Cher (poorly) covered Sharp’s “Don’t Come Around Tonight”; the Dixie Chicks made her “A Home” the title track to their 2002 album; Sharp collaborated with Art Garfunkel and Buddy Mondlock on another 2002 record, the beautiful Everything Waits to be Noticed.

One has to think she is poised for something special with Echo, her first full-length studio record since 2005’s Fine Upstanding Citizen. Produced by Don Was, the record contains easily her strongest, most varied collection of songs since her debut, a number of which stand as some of the best material she has yet committed to record.

Those familiar with Was’ online endeavor My Damn Channel will immediately recognize “Polite Society” and “John Q. Lonely,” both of which Sharp recorded in single-day sessions for the site. “Polite Society” is built around the chorus, a declaration and indictment all at once with an imaginative chord progression. “John Q. Lonely” is the stronger of the two songs—a heartbreaking study that weighs loneliness and self-reliance, in the person of the title character who celebrates his fiftieth birthday eating a cupcake and teetering on the regret that he never had a son. “People like me,” Sharp sings in his voice, “are spared the regret / Of foolishly giving more than we get / We’re not stupid enough to let somebody in.” The inherent sadness of his life is gently, subtly portrayed throughout the song.

A star turn by Bonnie Raitt on “Death by Perfection”‘s middle eight seems almost a distraction—the song’s lyric about ruining beauty by manufacturing it is the real star here:

But no, they took something beautiful
Straightened the curves and the filled in the cracks
‘Til it was unrecognizable
They shined it, refined it
Until they could see their own reflection.

Sharp’s own vocal is more than sufficient to carry the song; Raitt’s voice, though fine as ever, is a bit disruptive to the track’s flow. It’s a small but noticeable misstep.

Sharp has always written terrific heartbreak songs, and Echo tracks like “How I Could Love You” and “Whole Flat World” can be safely added to that portion of her oeuvre. The latter, which centers on the limited options the protagonist had once enforced upon herself, is particularly poignant. “You were my whole flat world,” Sharp sings in that wonderfully dense voice, “’til the day I discovered it was round / You were my favorite movie / ‘Til they started making them with sound.”

My favorite is “You Are Mine,” a Sharp song recorded by the Swedish folk band Calaisa three years ago. Again, the chorus is the center of the song, a paean on the memory of a love that slipped away:

Everybody’s got someone that they never forget
A turn in the road they don’t regret,
A long gone love that never lost its shine
Everybody’s got that one that won’t fade away
That keeps on taking you back to those days
A memory that won’t be left behind
And you are mine

Pages upon pages could be written about that sentiment; Sharp distills it into a tight three minutes. What resonates is the sense of resignation—“It is what it is,” as they say—but also the sweet feeling that arises in the wake of an encounter with that memory.

While Sharp’s lyrical prowess is certainly highlighted on Echo, the record also stands on its own in terms of melody and production. The latter is yet another effort by the eminently capable Don Was, who fills the songs with warmth through a use of basic acoustic instrumentation, spiked with the occasional organ or saxophone. These settings support and enhance the imaginative music Sharp and her collaborators have conjured, with its inventive structures and shifting chord and key changes. In all, Echo is a gorgeous listening experience, reminiscent of Was’ work on Raitt records like Luck of the Draw and Longing in Their Hearts.

Echo ends on an evocative and moving note, with the song “The Girl on Her Way,” featuring just Sharp on vocals and piano, telling a tale of a performer continuously on the cusp of the big time, who has yet to reach it. “How long can she be the girl on her way,” she sings, “before she’s just the woman who never got there?” It’s easy to read the question as an internal monologue Sharp might be having right now, 12 years removed from her debut, still not the proverbial household name. It’s difficult to tell whether even a record as rich as Echo will be whatever passes for a hit these days. It is, however, a rare thing of beauty, yet another milestone in what is turning out to be a winning, varied career for a fine singer/songwriter. One can only hope Maia Sharp sees that as its own reward.