by John Swensen
Debbie Davis is generally recognized as possessing one of the most beautiful voices in a city filled with talented singers. Her work with the Pfister Sisters, on her own and with Paul Sanchez has demonstrated her wide-ranging taste and an ability to comfortably inhabit just about any musical environment. Her first solo effort, It’s Not the Years, It’s the Miles, showcases that voice over a dozen tracks exquisitely crafted at Piety Street with a supporting cast of New Orleans musical greats who clearly pulled out all the stops to make this debut by someone they love and respect something special. Her warm, full voice illuminates the nooks and crannies of these songs with an emotional resonance that reminds listeners of such mistresses of restrained passion as Astrud Gilberto and Betty Carter. She’s also capable of letting that big voice carry her into mainstream pop territory, where her saucy delivery is more reminiscent of numerous big band vocalists and the great Cass Elliot. Every gesture is priceless.
Alex McMurray contributed three witty songs that frame the project. The languid title song is McMurray in his dreamy Hoagy Carmichael mode, and Davis delivers exquisite lines such as “dropped acid with the Eskimos” with superb aplomb. Perhaps the nicest thing about the track is Matt Perrine’s gorgeous string arrangement. Perrine put together another great string arrangement on McMurray’s sad and troubled love song, “Everything Right is Wrong Again.” By contrast, McMurray’s lighthearted love song “I’m Looking at You” ends the album on a sparse note, with Davis playing ukulele accompanied by McMurray’s acoustic guitar, while Zack Smith adds a carefree whistling part that makes it sound like Davis is riding off into the sunset.
Davis has a genius for revealing hidden nuances of well-known songs. In her hands, Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” is transformed into a sexy tango propelled by Perrine’s sousaphone lines. Her Brazilian-accented reading of the Lennon/McCartney ballad “Things We Said Today” benefits from the presence of Beatleologist Tom McDermott on keys and a great guitar solo from McMurray. McDermott frames Davis’ vocals on the easy swinging “You Can’t Say I Didn’t Try” and joins a traditional New Orleans jazz lineup (along with Perrine, McMurray, Gerald French, Aurora Nealand, Evan Christopher, Matt Rhoady and Duke Heitger) for Irving Berlin’s “You’d Be Surprised.” Jon Cleary adds the proper honky tonk piano feel to the sassy “Mama Goes Where Papa Goes.” The only one of these exercises that falls flat is a bizarre reading of “Trouble in Mind,” in which Bobby Lounge steals the spotlight from Davis with his wheezing vocal and inept piano playing.
The most interesting and challenging song on the record, “Two Crested Caracaras,” is an exotic vision from the fervid pen of Mark Bingham that Davis sings with the wide-eyed fascination of a parent telling an adventure tale to a child. Bingham’s zen sense of the interconnectedness of beauty and mortality charges this hypnogogic travelogue ostensibly about a pair of carrion feeding raptors with numinous power. It’s a musical and narrative sleight of hand that sums up the effort that went into making Davis’ debut a memorable experience for all concerned.