Deena – Rock River (Ear to the Ground Review)

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Bloggers note:  I wrote this review a couple of months ago – already long past when the album was released and too long after I received it.  I saved it, looking for the right time to post it, but you know what.  There isn’t a right time.  I just re-read what I wrote and it’s all true (as I see it).  So, late-ish on a Tuesday night in early December, I am posting this and I will post links on my Facebook and all that, and I really hope you read it, but more importantly, I hope you will give this record a listen.

Ear to the Ground reviews Rock River the most recent album by Deena.

Review after the jump.

Let’s start with the facts (from the artist’s bio):

Deena began her music career as co-founder of The Cucumbers, a leading band in the 80s indie pop scene in Hoboken, NJ, with reviews in Rolling Stone and People Magazine and videos on MTV. 
Deena‘s songwriting has been called “direct and artful,” by the New York Times, her voice “…incredible: kidstuff and wisdom merged,” by the Village Voice. Her songs have been recorded by Jackson Browne and Dar Williams and featured in films and on network TV.

Regular readers of Ear to the Ground will know that we have included songs from this album in our shuffle for some time now, and that I greatly enjoy this music.  Just for full disclosure:  I didn’t know any of the facts from the bio when I first listened to this album. If at all possible, I like to listen to new music with out expectations or bias.

Although I have written a fair amount about some great New Jersey artists, I will admit to be lacking some basic knowledge of New Jersey musical history, and so I had missed out of The Cucumbers (although hearing it now, I quite like it).

So onto Rock River.  The cover suggests a playful artistic spirit, and I was looking forward to finding out if the music lived up to that promise….

The interesting thing about coming into this album as free of expectations as possible is that in many ways this album is all about defying and confusing expectations.  New Jersey Indie Pop icon with Folk music credentials – you can guess what this is going to be like  right? Right! and Wrong!

Don’t get me wrong, on the surface Rock River meets all of what one might expect, and I was immediately drawn in by the unique voice of Deena Shoshkes and the catchy melodies.  The first song “My Own Advice” is a catchy Folk tinged Indie Pop music with a hook to die for.  The rest of the album moves freely and comfortably between catchy Indie Pop, jazzy rockers, and pedal-steel pushed Country music, with the quirky but beautiful voice of Deena serving as the unifying theme through-out.

The themes are familiar and the humor is subtle.  In less experienced hands, Rock River could easily fall into a sentimental nostalgic trap baited with sugary syrup.  But Deena has been in the music game for a while, and her quirky pop vocals have been seasoned with a depth that really only comes from time and experience.

 “My Friend Superman”  begins with horns and a jazzy back-beat and tells of a Man of Steel who needs a chance to relax after a hard day of fighting crime.

My friend Superman/Says his wife just doesn’t understand/Why he missed the Sunday dinner with her folks/He was too tired to laugh at the old man’s jokes/And besides, her mother smokes/He says, I can survive a nuclear blast, But do you know how long those dinners last?

“Always Tomorrow” is a heart-breakingly beautiful Country song about heartbreak that pulls the listener into the life of Tommy. A life filled with tainted memories and a broken-down but still functioning sense of hope.

Sugar-coated memories
Watered-down lies
He lost a lot a long time ago
In the backdrop of her eyes

 “Heartful of Now” is a toe-tapping/hook-filled Pop gem that may just hold within it’s lyrics one of the secrets of this album.  Music that avoids sentimentality by remaining firmly grounded in the present reality filled with all of it’s contradictions. 

And a heart full of now, heart full of now/No future no past/Don’t want to ask/Heart full of now, heart full of now/Doesn’t really matter why or how/When you’re all filled up with a heart full of now


So we go back to the cover art.  Swimmers – a boy waving.  A trip to the river filled with joy. Nostalgia tells us of idyllic summer days filled with wonder and joy and free of problems and fear. Truth is that our lives have always been complicated and joy has always been tinged with sadness.  But we go on.  After my initial listen to Rock River, I did read up on Deena and one thing I read was that she has written music for children.  That knowledge provided an interesting perspective to me.  The best music for children is simple, direct, and honest.  So I’m left with this idea in the back of mind… maybe Rock River is a wonderful Children’s album written for adults.

Rock River is available through Deena’s website and some of the usual download and streaming sites.

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