Lori Lieberman’s Exquisite Album of Loss and Regret

Cushioned by the Netherlands-based Matangi String Quartet, plus bass drums, percussion and occasional guitar, singer/songwriter/pianist Lori Lieberman delivers a tender, occasionally excruciatingly intimate song cycle replete with regret, heartache, abandonment, longing and loss.

The opener “You Can’t Take It Back” serves as an admonition about acting in haste and regretting it. “Even though I took the blame, I would have lost him anyway” the song's character admits.

A cover of Don McLean’s brutally direct abandonment song “Empty Chairs” follows: “And I wonder if you know, That I never understood, That although you said you’d go, Until you did, I never thought you would.”

There’s a fascinating backstory to that song’s inclusion on the album (which you can stream at the bottom of this review transferred from the double 45rpm set at 96/24):

In 1972 Lieberman was first to record “Killing Me Softly with His Song”, with music written by her managers at the time, songwriter Charles Fox and lyricist Norman Gimbel, written in collaboration with Lieberman, who was inspired by a McLean performance of “Empty Chairs” she’d seen at West L.A.’s Troubadour.

A year later Roberta Flack, who in turn was inspired to record it after hearing Lieberman’s record, had a huge hit with the song, which many others have subsequently covered.

For years Gimbel acknowledged Lieberman’s role but then about 12 year ago he recanted, threatening to sue McLean who, on his website, confirmed Lieberman’s contribution.

Lieberman got recent support from Flack and from McLean who said “They were not nice. You have a sensitive, lovely lady who never told a lie in her life, who writes poetry with feelings.”

You can and should read about this and all about Ms. Lieberman’s music business abuse in this excellent Washington Post story.

Now back to the album review: There’s a heartbreaker, “Martha and Me”, based on a playwright/comedienne Marian Fontana’s short story about two very different women, both of whom lost their husbands on 9/11. The two were members of Brooklyn’s Squad One, an elite FDNY team of first responders that lost a dozen members that day. One was Fontana’s husband Dave.

In the heartbreaking Lieberman penned title tune a mother thinks about her drug addicted daughter who left home “dirty” never to return and is now clean, pregnant and remains estranged.

That’s followed by another Lieberman song of abandonment and then one about the inability through travel to escape heartbreak. A fanciful one, "Girl Writing A Letter", based on a William Carpenter poem is about an art theft at Boston’s Gardner Museum.

There’s an uplifting, generational tune (“Woman”) and one of affirmation (“As Long As”). The closer (“Blue”) is about trying to let go and start afresh (which given what occurs in many of these songs [and indeed what happened to Lieberman early in her music biz career] would be useful), and what really matters in life. It’s told at first from the point of view of a dog named Blue.

From the description this song cycle may sound depressing— and it is. At the same time though, thanks to Lieberman’s deft, heartfelt performances, it’s also uplifting and somehow healing—especially if you’ve not experienced anything remotely like what the people in these songs have, in which case you'll come away thankful. Of course, if you’ve never been dumped, betrayed, or had your heart broken, I don’t think you’ve really lived.

The tone and mood here somehow remind me of the vibe staked out by Sufjan Stevens on his 2005 Illinois, especially his chilling song “John Wayne Gacy, Jr”, though none of the subject matter here is that dark.

I first heard this double 45rpm record as a test pressing at last fall’s Rocky Mountain Audio Festival (RMAF) played for me by Lieberman’s husband Joe Cali, who has long been involved in the high performance audio business, and yes, he is the same Joseph Cali who was Joey in “Saturday Night Fever” (among other roles). That listen made clear that both the performance and recording were special.

More recently we were invited to hear Lieberman perform live accompanied by The Matangi Quartet at Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall’s smaller 599 seat downstairs performance venue. She proved to be as effective and entrancing in concert as she is in the studio—which is not always the case. It was a thoroughly transportive evening, though as with this album, the hurt goes only so far before you wish for some emotional variation. That’s not meant as a criticism of the album, which completely fulfills the artist’s mission. I’ve been playing it for weeks now preparing this review and each play reveals something new in Ms. Lieberman’s performance and in the subtleties of the arrangements, which she co-wrote and the beauty of the instrumental performances.

The 192/24 bit recording is direct and honest and 100% digital artifact-free. The perspective puts Lieberman’s voice close but not in your face and she’s presented pretty much unadorned something only an accomplished vocalist can successfully pull off, which she does. Bob Clearmountain’s tasteful mix puts Lieberman right there in front of you, but not too close, sometimes with harmonies subtly overdubbed. The richly recorded strings (produced in The Netherlands) add sweeping drama to her piano, which floats effectively somewhat in the background. The result is a comfortable place in which to spend sonic time. The record is filled with memorable melodies and lyrical drama. For me, for whatever reason or reasons the haunting “Hallie” is the one that I keep hearing in my head.

Pressed on two 180g 45rpm LPs and presented in a gatefold jacket (in which the art director got the spine upside down). Grammy Award winner Darcy Proper mastered the project, but who cut lacquers and where is not among the credits, which is odd for an album somewhat aimed at the audiophile community, though this project extends well beyond the bounds of typical “audiophile fare”. Here’s “Empty Chairs” (this side of my copy was pressed eccentrically but it's not audible. I mention this for those who like to analyze files):

"Empty Chairs"

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marmaduke's picture

a puzzlement to me. Although I enjoy pretty much each and every album she has recorded as a stand alone statement; her body of work to my ear sounds very similar in song topic selection (deeply, sadly emotional) and execution (phrasing).

I feel as though I am eavesdropping at the confessional with almost every song.
Perhaps after listening to singers who mail in their performance, it sounds as though Ms Lieberman has lived every heart wrenching lyric she sings. She really delivers.

I hope in real life she is a cockeyed optimist!

Is she a one and done album selection for others as well? Or maybe it is me after all.

Regardless I am glad she is still recording and delivering the goods.

marmaduke's picture

My first comment was posted before I listened to the 'Empty Chairs' file Michael posted.

I listened.

Sure enough there was the exquisitely recorded piano joined quickly with a subtle violin. At just the right moment the quivering completely vulnerable voice of Ms Lieberman enters. And then there are the lyrics, always the lyrics that cut you to the quick.

The song had hardly begun when tears began to well and continue as I type this followup. For those of you old enough to remember Maynard G Krebs saying that he was 'too misty to travel' yeah it is that kind of moment.

The practical me says I need only one Lori Lieberman album. The problem is that while it is the Lori Lieberman album that I am playing at the time that I need to keep, I cannot bear to part with the other albums of hers which I own.

Stock up on the Kleenex, buy this album and cancel your catharsis therapy session. It's crying time again, and you are glad for the opportunity.