Abby Ahmad – Curriculum (2010)

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I had Curriculum sitting atop a small pile on my desk at work the other day, and was asked what kind music it was. Sometimes the answer to that question is a simple one, and often causes the conversation to be cut short — any mention of things like country or free jazz and you’re likely to get a quick eye roll and a change of subject. This time around, I had no easy answer: “Uh, I don’t really know …”

A generic term that might be used is “singer/songwriter” but that’s less than useless here. Abby Ahmad sings, plays guitar, writes songs, and wraps them up in a tasty assortment of styles. Folk? Sure. And blues, and soul, and sorta-funk, and rock and … ah, it hardly matters.

I got lost in it and had a great time finding my way out.

The subject matter ranges from disgust with the state of things (which might seems like a cliché in the folk world, but I still like a good rant), to the challenge of dealing with relationships. How we come together and pull apart, it’s a complex life we can lead, and Ahmad has some pointed takes on these matters. Dang, I wish I had been so insightful in my 20s.

Sonically, Curriculum has a lot to offer. As much as I like Ahmad’s acoustic guitar style, which cuts a percussive Ani-esque slash with some delicate finger picking, it’s the clever use of horns that pushes the arrangements over the top. I’ll be the first to admit that the opening “Star Pupil” immediately drew me in with its Tom Waits clatter. As the tune progresses, horns pop in here and there to extend the harmonic landscape and give a tremendous boost to the energy level. Use of this “accented” approach lifts the feel of the record into that unknown territory. It might be horns, it might be strings, it might even even be piano … but the results always seem fresh.

While “Star Pupil” is my overall favorite track, the closing duo of “Going Gone” into “In Favor Of Braver Parts” forms a powerful image of what Ahmad has to offer. Two songs dealing with the thread that runs through the “what might have been and what might be” of relationships, the music is by turns uplifting (the swelling horns and soaring vocals of the former, where the the alchemy of Ahmad’s and Morgan Paige McOwen’s voices bring to mind Lori McKenna in duet form) and darkly hopeful (circular arpeggios on acoustic guitar, gilded with violin and cello). Very inspiring.

In the interest of closure, I’ll have to go back to the office and tell my co-workers that I have an answer: Curriculum is just great music.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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