REVIEW: SUSAN CATTANEO – THE HAMMER AND THE HEART (2017)

Ambitious double record from Boston songwriter

It does, you have to say, take a certain level of confidence to come out with a double album.

Only the greats really pull it off with aplomb. Springsteen, for example on “The River”. Then there was the close cousin of the double record in the early 1990s, when bands released multiple albums on the same day – Springsteen again and Guns N Roses most notably – “Use Your Illusion II” was better than I, but we digress.

If it took chutzpah back then, then you’d best believe it is a mighty undertaking in the 21st century when music exists on a Spotify playlist.

Nevertheless, it is into this climate that Susan Cattaneo brings “The Hammer And The Heart” into the world. An 18-song double opus that sees the renowned academic – Susan is the Professor of Songwriting at Berklee University no less – chart her journey from almost giving up on her music career to, well, making a double record celebrating it.

To that end, the effervescent love letter to the greats of vinyl “In The Grooves” seems pivotal. Coming near the start of “The Hammer” – essentially the louder, rockier of the two sides – it is gleeful and fun. Most of the tracks on that half have the same carefree vibe.

The opener “Work Hard Love Harder” – cut with Americana legends The Bottle Rockets and just one of these to feature special guests – comes in with a chorus that will worm its way into your brain and stay there. “The River Always Wins”, with its musical hints of Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy” is a genuine highlight, while the slide guitar driven blues of “Lonely Be My Lover” – another to feature The Bottle Rockets – is both filled with regret and hope. It is, like just about everything else here, a brilliant piece of songwriting.

A diverse collection too, “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?” finds primal roads to walk down, while there is a knowingly naughty funkiness about the sass filled “Ten Kinds Of Trouble,” but wherever it goes “The Hammer And The Heart” – finds something interesting to say.

“The Hammer” ends with some brooding soul in the shape of “Back Door Slam”, before “The Heart” finds a more gentle, Americana shade.

Like its companion disc it kicks off with “…..Love Harder” and this song on its own shows why this record as a whole is so great. It takes a marvellous song to lend itself to two such disparate versions – and make no mistake this is a marvellous song.

Indeed, it is on the perhaps more personal tracks here that we can appreciate Cattaneo’s talent fully. Her voice takes centre stage on the gorgeous “Ordinary Magic”, “Carried” which features Jennie Halstead finds a mournful sound, a vibe that the heartbreaking “Bitter Moon” takes up a notch. Jennifer Kimbrall adds some lovely harmonies to the insecurity made flesh of “Smoke,” but the pick of the duets, perhaps, is the way the voices of Cattaneo and Nancy Beaudette blend on “Fade To Blue”.

The record ends with a couple of covers. One you might know. One you might not, however, the slinky “Everybody’s Crying Mercy” – which is also covered by Cattaneo’s self-proclaimed hero and clear influence, Bonnie Raitt – is the pick of the two, although credit to her for finding a new way to do “Space Oddity” too.

It ends a brilliant album. One with the skill to pull its ambitious aims off with aplomb. The album is dead? That’s what people would have you believe. Those people are wrong. The purists, the music lovers if you will, always knew that the very best albums are best listened to as a whole, as a continuous story. People like Susan Cattaneo know that the very best music is, was and always will be from the heart.

Rating 9/10