It would have to be startling ordeal, if you were a singer, to have surgery on your instrument. You would seek assurances, or some fake placating at least, prior to going under. “Doc, will I be able to sing again?” would be a valid question. But was it the chloroform or a trick of the light, or was that a twinkle in the sawbones’s eye you noticed just before drifting off?
Never Just a Dream, is the wondrous full-length debut from Emma-Lee, a sensuous singer-songwriter from Toronto who underwent not one, but two, career-imperiling operations – one for a growth on her thyroid gland, the other for an unrelated vocal chord polyp – before recording a 10-song collection that remembers seventies AM radio as jazzier and plusher than it actually was.
Now, I’m no doctor and I don’t play one on TV. But, as far as her voice is concerned, it appears everything turned out fine. Only fine? Okay, spectacular. Spectacular, that’s it? All right, they sprinkled gold dust inside her throat, implanted strands of silk and coated it all with gleaming honey. The medical team, with the input of chanteuses k.d. lang and Jolie Holland, worked on Emma-Lee like she was Pavarotti, Lee Majors and Lindsay Wagner combined. The surgeries, suffice to say, were a success.
But then there is the matter of using the voice in a sublime manner, on material worthy of such a tool. Here Emma-Lee thrives. The title track has a hazy, waltzing warmth, with heavenly background vocals – imagine the Chordettes nodding on heroin. The singing is stately.
“That Sinking Feeling” adds strings, lithe guitars, a bossa-nova beat and clapping. The album addresses heartbreak, but not necessarily Emma-Lee’s own. Here she offers a shoulder and something more: “That sinking feeling doesn’t mean you to have swim alone.”
Things are more playful on Jealousy, a jaunty piano-tinkler that advises to “stop treating lovers like goddamn possessions.”
The aching vocal jazz of Flow begins a three-part suite that follows a romantic breakup’s phases. Isn’t it Obvious, with a Hawaiian lilt and k.d.-style phrasing, has the former lovers realizing that friendship is out of the question. “Mr. Buttonlip” is a big-band swinging kiss-off, where a strong silent type is told to hit the road.
I’m a fan of Emma-Lee’s lyrical work. The dramatic country soul of “An Older Man”, which emboldens better than Viagra, says a man who’s been around has “lips like clockwork, because he’s kissed a lot of flowers.”
Clearly, Never Just a Dream, is an auspicious beginning. The languid “Where You Want to Be” promises more to come from a singer who is also a professional photographer (specializing in self-portraits). “I won’t settle, no not a little bit,” Emma-Lee sings, “you don’t get me, I’m not the type to quit.” Evidently so.