Cindy Lee Berryhill
Garage Orchestra / Straight Outta Marysville
Cindy Lee Berryhill’s career is easily divided into three phases. She first made waves as part of the short lived “anti-folk” movement in the late 1980’s. Along with Kirk Kelly, Roger Manning and Latch, Berryhill sought to revitalize acoustic folk music by stripping it down to the bare essentials and injecting punk energy and irreverence. Cindy Lee released Who Is Going to Save the World and Naked Movie Star on Rhino Records. The records got good press, but the reissue label was never all that successful breaking new artists. Phase two of the Cindy Lee story came in the mid-1990’s with the ambitious Garage Orchestra project. From the late 1990’s until 2013, Cindy Lee’s primary concern was caring for her husband, music journalist Paul Williams, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a bicycling accident. Her 2006 album, Beloved Stranger was informed by the stories of Iraq war veterans who suffered brain injuries. Williams died in 2013. Cindy Lee reemerged as a writer and performer. She returned to recording with The Adventurist in 2017.
Omnivore Records released The Adventurist. The critical success of the new music prompted the label to issue expanded reissues of Garage Orchestra (1994) and Straight Outta Marysville (1996). Both records are informed by Berryhill’s exploration of an expanded sonic pallet. While both albums are anchored in the Garage Orchestra concept, they were produced under very different circumstances.
Garage Orchestra was the culmination of two years of woodshedding, experimenting and gigging with orchestral musicians from the San Diego area. The songs feature string players, tuned percussion and lush arrangements. All that preparation allowed Berryhill’s orchestra to record the ten songs in just five days with the musicians mostly playing all together in the same room. The “UFO Suite” is the most ambitious track, a multipart, complex piece based on stories from around Area 51. “Radio Astronomy” is built around the unique timbers of tuned percussion (marimba, vibraphone, tympani) and an insistent string section. “Every Someone Tonight” is closer to a traditional rock song with a prominent guitar scratch playing against the orchestra. The lyrics were written by Paul Williams, and are pure impressionist fantasy. The words are perfect for the song, they make sense in the context of the song, while actually being quite abstract, bordering on nonsensical.
Straight Outta Marysville is a more stripped-down affair. Paul Williams suffered his brain injury around this time, which took up much of Cindy Lee’s attention. She didn’t have the luxury of working out arrangements for a large ensemble, or writing a lot of new songs. These sessions were done with the touring version of the Garage Orchestra (guitar, bass, percussion and cello). There is a theme of overcoming adversity running through the album. “High Jump” is the story of a high school track star who is the only girl on the boys’ team. “Diana” was ahead of its time. The song is a celebration of the strength and courage of a trans-woman. Cindy Lee sings, “I may have had a crush on her… guitar.”
There is a loose reading of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” that features a long, spoken word improvisation. I wonder how much autobiography there is in “Unknown Master Painter.” She sings of struggling to make the rent and pay the bills. She sings about the work of the unknown painter “making the most of a cheap canvas.” The wordplay on the song is close to what she and Roger Manning were doing in their “anti-folk” days.
Both of these Omnivore reissues feature extensive liner notes and a generous helping of bonus tracks. The one thing missing that I would have really appreciated are printed lyrics. Cindy Lee Berryhill tells intricate stories in her songs. I really would like to be able to read along and really absorb the words.