Things Here Are Different

There’s no experience so precious for a critic as being taken by surprise. Jill Sobule is an unheralded singer-songwriter in her early 30s who signed a record deal after years of hard work in Denver, New York, and Nashville. She has a little-girl voice, breathy and high, that under pressure takes on a nasal edge. She writes in a pop/jazz-fusion style that’s easy to dismiss as bland. And the first song on Things Here are Different, ”Living Color” — about a love that turns her world from black and white into full colorized splendor — could be taken for a dippy fantasy.

But all these first impressions turn out to be unfair. It’s precisely the edge on Sobule’s voice — along with the breath blended into it, and tiny slips and sighs in her delivery of words — that makes the feeling in her singing cut through. Her songs are built from material that proves to be tougher than it might seem at first. Fragments of melody stuck with me until, bit by bit, a mosaic of almost every song on the album had constructed itself in my memory.

And then there are the subjects Sobule writes about. That first song probably isn’t a fantasy; Sobule isn’t at all sentimental. Instead, she’s tough enough to look people — including herself — in the eye without flinching. In ”Pilar (Things Here Are Different)” she makes pointed fun of herself for thinking an unmarried woman in a conservative Spanish town could deal with getting pregnant as easily as a free-living American. In ”Life Goes on Without You,” a song about her own loss of love, she lets aching strings swell under her voice, but still she doesn’t lose her nerve. Her departed lover will love again, she sings — but so will she.

Some of Sobule’s conceits seem a little simple. Her concluding track, ”The Gifted Child,” sounds more like a musical lecture — based on Alice Miller’s book The Drama of the Gifted Child — than a fully realized song. But her little-girl toughness is hard to forget. A-

Things Here Are Different
  • Music