Album Review: Susan Cattaneo — Haunted Heart

Paul Wallen | January 13th, 2014

cattaneohauntedMeet the new Susan Cattaneo, moved by personal trauma and steadfast in artistic vision.

A couple years ago, Cattaneo found herself performing CPR on a woman who fainted and fell down the stairs in her Boston home. She heard police say the woman would not survive the injuries to her head and neck. As it turned out, however, the woman’s life was saved by Cattaneo’s emergency aid and the speedy arrival of first responders. Still, Cattaneo spent the next six months in the grip of post-traumatic stress disorder, trying to shake a fear of impending death at every turn. Ultimately, she emerged with a stronger sense of self and a more intimate approach to songwriting.

On her new album, an emboldened Cattaneo saunters through our darkest recesses, illuminating feelings we like to pretend we don’t have. Fear, anger and despair have rarely sounded so exquisite.

The first verse of the album’s title track doubles as an 45-second elegant prelude: “Caught in a haunted heart / Circling back to find the mark / The moment I knew I belonged to the dark / Caught in a haunted heart,” Cattaneo sings softly, setting the stage for 13 original songs to come. The prelude’s piano quickly gives way to a pulsating beat on “Abide,” with tension building throughout a brooding take on black blizzards of the Dust Bowl era until Cattaneo belts out: “They said that rain would follow the plow / But that tight-fisted sky won’t give up clouds!”

The bright, skipping “Lorelei” seems to offer a break from the gloom until you realize it’s a maniacal murder ballad about envious twin sisters, and there you are tapping your toe to lines like “Come down, come close to the water’s edge / And I’ll drag you down into my river bed /And then you’ll die, just like I died / Lorelei.” 

“Worth the Whiskey,” co-written with Jillian Cardarelli, turns the typical country music drinking-in-a-bar scenario into a cheeky, defiant anthem, as Cattaneo growls, “Take a sip for every time you lied and kissed me.”

Those three songs form a powerful opening to the album, one that demands repeat listens. However, those who listen to the entire album straight through are rewarded handsomely.  Cattaneo and producer Lorne Entress (Lori McKenna, Ronnie Earl) have created an unbroken contrast of shadow and beauty; the songs rise from an earthy rhythm, one bleeding into the next. The detailed vision extends to extravagantly photographed and designed packaging, making a hard copy worth the investment – especially for the booklet of lyrics that allows you to trace Cattaneo’s nimble command of language. “Lies Between Lovers,” for example, flips the meaning of the title phrase from a lack of honesty to the children caught in the middle of warring parents: “Temper flaring like a cigarette / And little ones between us taking cover / That’s what lies between lovers.”

The brutally honest ballad “Done Better” chastises the man of a broken home for not living up to promises made. The bewitching “Queen of the Dancehall” is a recreation of the character in Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger” as a female with a scar on her cheek, given to her by “a man with a hard whiskey temper” and who longs to forget “the endless blue eyes of her daughter.”

Though it falls squarely into the Americana realm, Haunted Heart eschews fiddle and banjo for liberal doses of keyboards and electric guitar that lend a roots rock groove. The backing band includes familiar names such as Kevin Barry (acoustic guitar, pedal steel, nylon string guitar, high strung guitar, lap steel, slide guitar), Lyle Brewer (electric and acoustic guitar), Richard Gates (bass), Marco Giovino (drums, percussion, tambourine) and Kenny White (piano, synth, organ). They get a well-earned shout-out (“How ’bout a hand for that band!”) at the very end of the undocumented 15th track, a two-minute instrumental cleverly called “Hidden Heart.”

Cattaneo’s career includes three previous albums, numerous writing credits and 13 years as a songwriting professor at Berklee College of Music, but she admits to bending her music to fit in with the mainstream country market in the past. The scary accident two years ago unleashed a torrent of darkness that became Haunted Heart, her most honest and mature work to date. Cattaneo should step into the light long enough to take a bow for creating what will stand as one of 2014’s best albums.

4.5 Stars

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