March 28, Hotel Utah Saloon
LOCAL LIVE "Thanks, you guys, for coming to my birthday party!" the beaming Bay Area singer-songwriter Liz Pappademas says as she sits down at the piano and sets out to kick off her West Coast tour with a bit of hometown fanfare in the tightly packed Hotel Utah performance space. "Tonight we are celebrating the birth of my CD. Afterwards we'll all have cake I even made it myself!"
There's a pause. She looks out into the crowded room, filled with friends and family as well as many curious listeners. "Hmm, I hope there's enough to go around!" she says, chuckling.
There's good reason for Pappademas to sound so thrilled. Her new self-released CD, Eleven Songs, is an utterly beguiling collection of introspective piano-driven pop blessed with a warm-bath production and thoughtfully arranged bare-bones instrumentation. Bearing the narrative agility of a class-act storyteller as well as the unhurried precision of a poet, Pappademas writes lyrics that carry impressive weight standing alone on the page. Delivered in her smoldering alto, evoking a cross between Jolie Holland and Fiona Apple, they burn with an almost disarming poignancy. Which is why I'm here. Sure, I like cake and all, but I came for her songs.
She begins with an absorbing, gradually unfolding depiction of madness on "The Born Again April Fool" ("The walls bled at the hospitals / He buried the furniture out in the garden"). Over gently urgent piano thrusts and understated thumping from drummer Rob Sanchez, the story evolves into an unsettling but sympathetic portrait of Scott Panetti, a schizophrenic currently on death row in Texas despite a massive public outcry over the inhumanity of executing a man with severe mental illness. The song lingers in the room well after the piano sighs its final note.
Also joining Pappademas onstage is violinist-accordionist Chris Black, whose swaying accompaniment brings added tenderness to the music. His playfulness on the Aimee Mannesque "I Had to Tell You" helps the song bob along with doses of accordion whimsy, while the artist's lament "Desaturate It" benefits from a similar instant romanticism thanks to the instrument. A tale about a film facing cuts in order to keep its Motion Picture Association of America rating, the song is more universally about the dilemma of artists having to water down their work in order to please others: "And I was gonna be Rauschenberg / I was gonna be Pollock / But the MPAA had to save the eyes of the public." Pappademas takes her craft seriously, as these words suggest.
The evening's highlight arrives in the form of "Keep Going West," a subtly devastating chronicle of leaving town for a fresh start after the tumultuous end of a relationship. Alone on piano, her voice delicately trembling on the edges of certain notes, Pappademas reveals, "The tires are curled on the side of the road / Sleeping off the breakup from the wheel and the road / I am curled on one side of the bed / In a Motel 6, with my independence." It's powerful stuff, to be sure, but worth every lip-biting second. (Todd Lavoie)
LIZ PAPPADEMAS With Klum and El Olio Wolof. April 22, 9 p.m., $8. Make-Out Room, 3225 22nd St., SF. (415) 647-2888
Eleven Songs is available at www.cdbaby.com, Amoeba Music, and Aquarius Records.