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Letter Home 

By Lila Nelson. Madeline Music.

The concept of "home" has been a recurring theme in song, literature and art. It conjures up the literal, physical structure, the metaphorical and one's history. Resident singer/songwriter Lila Nelson uses the various forms of "home," telling an eclectic assortment of stories in song, for her excellent new record, Letter Home. Nelson displays her gift for storytelling in songs filled with regret, loneliness, small joys and irony, complementing them with a spare, intimate sound and execution.

Musician/producer Kenny Edwards, a founding member of the Stone Poneys (Linda Ronstadt's original band), teams up guitarist Freddy Koella to produce a very intimate atmosphere. The focus is on Nelson's voice -- sometimes delivered in spoken word, occasionally vulnerable, always sincere. Koella, who toured with Dylan's band, provides understated and tasteful guitar, banjo and lap steel accompaniments. Former Lone Justice and Jayhawks drummer Don Heffington and Edwards, on bass, fill out the soundscape, which isn't delicate, simply bare. The vocals are recorded dry, showcasing Nelson's execution.

Her influences are filtered in her songs: There's Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell, Dylan (with a version of Mr. Zimmerman's "I Was Young When I Left Home") and Rickie Lee Jones. Nelson's subtle delivery often catches you off-guard, such as her opening lines of "Do You Got the Time": "Fall walked in first week of school/ Set down her heavy history book/ There's gonna be a test she said/ You'd better read it word for word..."

There's a deft poetic sense with the songs featured on Letter Home. Nelson delivers a beautiful cover of Poi Dog Pondering's "Thanksgiving," written by Adam Sultan. Nelson often charmingly employs humor and sarcasm in her public appearances; here is comes flying through in her hilarious "American Miracle," a song about a struggling (and spiritually empty) songwriter who discovers "roots" music and creates a hit and a career. "So she changed her last name/ And she got on a plane/ and she found her roots in bluegrass/ Started dating a bad-ass producer/ From Nashville, Tennessee." You can ask Nelson if she was thinking of anyone in particular.

Letter Home is a strong set of songs, based in a solid narrative. It also shows growth and maturity in Nelson's songwriting. As the narrator asks in "Do You Got the Time": "Of all the things we don't/ Talk about at the kitchen table/ This one is the hardest not to say/ Why do you keep your job/ When it don't make any money/ And it keeps you away..." She may be asking herself this question. And we feel fortunate that Nelson is persistent in pursuing that muse, that "job," to create and share her elegant art.

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Mark Shikuma

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