Yes, it would be easy to claim that Paul – who has released eight albums on her own Ivanhoe Road Music label in the past eight years and is considered one of the best guitarists in folk music – is selling out, or at least trying to. But her face in the photograph doesn’t reveal knowing sexiness; it has hints of defiance and disdain.
Seen as a whole, the photograph shows a person who’s clearly a woman, who’s comfortable as a woman, and who’s skilled and strong enough that she doesn’t need or want to play the games that are unfortunately common for women in the music industry.
That interpretation is given some credence by the song “Think of Me,” from The Next Hill. The track showcases the value of the career-summary package’s simple conceit: matching up music with loads of interesting and easy-to-navigate supplementary materials.
The generous two-disc set includes a CD with 20 audio selections and a CD-ROM that provides a comprehensive career retrospective, with lyrics, guitar tunings, and notes for 86 songs and instrumentals. (About the only thing missing is sheet music.) This format results in the feel of a box set in a compact package, at once a sampler of the artist’s work and an in-depth look at every track.
“Think of Me,” Paul explains on the CD-ROM, was written in response to an overture from record-label executives. They wanted her, but only if she took voice lessons, didn’t perform many of her own songs, and didn’t play guitar. (Men record-buyers don’t like talented female guitarists, they argued.) Paul turned it into the story of a jilted lover: “Now before I meet somebody else / Gonna make some rules that suit myself / Number one is that it’s got to be real / That somebody better be feeling what I feel.”
Retrospective shows that Paul has done the right thing by carving her own path through the world. Her music, alternately propulsive and pensive, is strong in both musicianship and voice and has none of the trappings of self-produced work; the songs are fully formed, mature, and well-recorded.
The selection and sequencing of the CD are straightforward and unimaginative, typically featuring a few tracks from each record, in the chronological order of the albums on which they appeared. While not put together as a cohesive artistic statement, this makes a certain amount of sense; the four tracks from her two all-instrumental records provide a nice break in the middle of Retrospective, and by the time they’re done, listeners will be wanting more of Paul’s full, round vocals.
One of the great things about this package is that it gives people the chance to explore the music in new ways. With her hypnotic fingerstyle and flatpick playing and a clear, unaffected, and alluring voice with a gift for phrasing, Paul’s words frequently get lost. The CD-ROM gives fans the opportunity to read her writing by itself, and while some of Paul’s earlier work – such as “There Is a Castle” – is too earnest to get away with some of its clichés, her writing is generally incisive and insightful, with smart use of language.
The first verse of “Come Cross the Water,” for example, offers spot-on connections between nature and the narrator’s memories, with perfect rhythm: “I walked out to the water’s edge at twilight / To try to ease my longing for you / But the waves brought to mind the curls in your hair / And the wind brought to mind your leaving.”
Paul’s notes on each song are short and lively, and she frequently touches on both technical issues and the genesis of the lyrics or tune.
Based on the title, people who already own all Paul’s albums might think they missed early work. (She released her self-titled debut in 1995.) In fact, very few of the compositions – and none of the recordings – date from the ’80s. Yet even though those already familiar with her recordings won’t find much new music here – only one track, “Fly Through the Lowlands,” hasn’t appeared on one of her previous albums, and four tracks come from the limited-edition Season’s Turning – the CD-ROM provides an unobstructed view of Paul’s lyrical skills and her musical journey.
As a result, Retrospective offers a rare insight into the artist’s creative process that’s more than worth the price of admission. And for the rest of the world, this package is a superior introduction to the work of Gayla Drake Paul.
Gayla Drake Paul will hold a CD-release concert at 7 p.m. Monday, July 15, at Cedar Rapids’ Stars Guitars. The performance will be broadcast on KUNI’s Live from Studio One program.