Every year, hoards of hopeful songwriters make their way to Nashville intent on musical stardom. For most of them, Music City is their starting point, a mid-sized metropolis filled with opportunities aplenty to impress a serious audience for the first time, removed from the safety of their welcoming hometown crowds. For Lissie, Nashville was the place to be after she’d paid her dues in L.A., arriving in Middle Tennessee not intent on impressing anyone but herself as she focused on creating a worthy successor to 2009’s critically-acclaimed Why You Runnin’ EP. And, though her path to Nashville played out differently than most, she ultimately fell into the same trap that many of her more novice contemporaries wrestle with here daily: She lost herself amidst high expectations and studio gimmickry. But, not completely.
Critics lavished praise on Why You Runnin’ because it was born of Lissie’s very composition. She’d moved out to L.A. a few years prior after dropping out of college and then into the small town of Ojai, CA after she endured the heartbreak that colors most of her work to-date. That mountainous, sun-drenched topography, untainted by the vanity of the Hollywood set, is felt throughout the EP’s brief playtime with ease. A quiet, soulful folk collection, Why You Runnin’ was charming because it was real, a heart-broken love letter both intimate and wide-eyed, self-aware of its troubadour country influences at the same time it was unquestionably a document of Lissie’s life at the time it was written.
This isn’t to suggest that, conversely, Catching A Tiger is simply contrived. But, its glossy, overburdened production and catch-all dynamic shifts (remember that trap I mentioned?), certainly make it feel less honest. Indeed, though Lissie’s affecting, nay stirring, vocals and endearing tales are still present and accounted for, they tend to lose their potency rendered through an unpredictable hodgepodge of styles that run the gamut of four decades. Outside of her folk material, she’s most convincing as a conduit of late ’60s and ’70s rock, channeling Stevie Nicks on “When I’m Alone” and the album’s revved up, dusty first single, “In Sleep.” She modernizes that aesthetic decently on “Bully” and the Americana-tinged “Little Lovin’,” but, the Spector-aping “Stranger” marked the point where I found it impossible to take the collection (if you can call it that) seriously any longer. From there, “Loosen the Knot” recalls Pop-era U2 and, less random but no less fortunate, “Cuckoo” and “Worried About” ooze with Sheryl Crow or Leona Lewis-like banality.
It’s not that these genres are disdainful on their own terms, of course, or that Lissie’s evolving of her sound was inherently a bad idea. It’s just that this collection reeks of production pandering, an attempt by the men turning the knobs and the suits controlling the purse to market Lissie to every demographic possible, save those who are patrons of hip-hop and punk rock. To be sure, she wrote or co-wrote every song on her debut, so I’m not suggesting she’s some kind of puppet, or that everyone that worked on the record was simply driven by greed. (This is the music industry we’re talking about, after all.) I have no more evidence than the casual listener as to how Catching A Tiger was made, but I do know that a lot can happen when expectations shift and the stakes inch higher. And, for Lissie, no matter how you look at it, this largely meant uprooting her captivating rawness for a slick Nashville sheen, and in the process the key ingredient to her initial appeal was lost.
“Largely” is an important signifier here because Catching A Tiger is certainly not a bad album, per se. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I keep coming back to “Little Lovin'”, “Everywhere I Go”, and “Oh Mississippi”, the three tracks Lissie reworked from Why You Runnin’ for her debut. The strength of each is its austerity, as Lissie’s undeniable croon sits atop reverent arrangements that highlight her voice rather than mask it. Elsewhere, unfortunately, Lissie steps in line behind the sterile, genre-hopping dexterity of skilled session players, appearing more like an actress in a play than the master of her own destiny. And, quite frankly, I left the theater bored to tears.