A complex, painful theme handled with elegance, honesty and power.
When an album centres on a single theme, one key question is whether they can sustain the listener’s interest throughout on that subject. In this case, where Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Leah Shaw frames her feelings concerning her mother’s illness and death in the eight-track album ‘Play Beautifully’, she unquestionably succeeds.
That’s maybe partly, as the album publicity notes suggest, because “it covers a lot of topics we are feeling globally in the past year and a half: grief, loss, love and healing.” But what arguably gives this album such a deep sense of authenticity is the use of deeply personal angles to structure the whole work. While “Play beautifully” turns out to be a phrase her mother invariably used to tell her children before dropping them off for music classes, the title track itself is a very short recording of Shaw and her mother, who had Alzheimer’s, playing the piano together shortly before her death. It’s not easy to listen to, but maybe that’s the point: it gives the listener a real sense of context and connection to the whole narrative of the album.
Apart from that brief ‘real life’ interlude, the rest of the album mostly consists of soft-toned and slow-to-mid-paced kind of folk-pop numbers, although there’s also a cracking soul-influenced track, ‘Look At Me’. But if most of the songs have fairly conventional structures and melodies, they are vastly strengthened by the album’s broad range of instruments (the trumpet playing is worth the entry fee alone on several numbers) and painstakingly crafted arrangement, with some stunning vocal harmonies. As a result, what is clearly an intense and painful subject to cover benefits from a huge musical canvas, that both allows a whole range of feelings ample breathing space, and gives the rich instrumentation enough elbow room not to get overly dense, too.
The opening ‘Leaving in the Morning’ provides a strong sense of transition and unsettled emotions and also establishes the format of dialogues between Shaw and her mother all the remaining songs use. Clearly very close to her, perhaps because of that Shaw is also keenly aware when understanding between them wasn’t ideal:
“It’s a different language
The way you do pain
The way I’m frustrated.”
She sings on ‘Intentions’, summing up the generation gap that often emerges when it comes to ways of handling emotions in about 10 words flat, while on ‘Where Are You?’ there’s an unbridled anger at having to accept, or not, her mother’s death: “I don’t need to get over it, I don’t need to feel better.”
Meanwhile, ‘Pretty Mama’, a deftly worked, understated piece with guitar, fiddle and harmonica with the strongest folk elements of the whole album, is written about both her moments of failing to live up to her mother’s expectations as well her need, and determination, to try to do so.
“Hey pretty mama
Are you watching over me
Well I hope you turned away
Cause I ain’t who you raised me to be
Pretty mama, I just wanna make you proud of me.”
It’s hard to pick out a song with the most impact in an album which packs so much emotional punch with both elegance and power. But ‘Look At Me’, the repeated mixture of a challenge and a demand, as Shaw’s mother succumbs to the effects of Alzheimer’s, which both picks up the musical pace with a fast-moving, heavy soul beat and ends in a cacophonic blur of distorted guitars is certainly one of the most brilliantly conceived. And ‘You Knew Me’, which starts a desperate, heart-rending plea with reality to readjust itself back to how things were before her mother died but also works its way through to some kind of reconciliation with how things now are, fully justifies its seven-minute length.
It has to be said Shaw’s voice is probably the best thing about the album: deeply expressive and nuanced, she is more than capable of maintaining the fine line between fragility and strength needed to underpin the album’s momentum. Combined with the excellent instrumentation and content and ‘Play Beautifully’ is both mournful and uplifting, insightful and full-blooded. Put simply, both musically and as a tribute to a loved one, it’s got a heck of a lot going for it.