Reviewed by Simone Solondz
New Jersey-based singer-songwriter Amy Speace ’90 started her career in the arts as a Shakespearean actor and is now well on her way to finding her true voice in music. She released her first recording, Songs for Bright Street, in 2006 and this year followed it up with The Killer in Me (Wildflower Records), an accomplished collection of original songs inspired by the breakup of her marriage.
The record opens with a simple strummed acoustic guitar and Speace’s throaty, Emmylou Harris-esque vocals on “Dog Days,” a bittersweet paean to small-town childhood memories. After the first chorus, her longtime band, the Tearjerks, kicks in behind her, with heavy electric guitar, bass and drums. It’s a fairly trite beginning to what turns out to be an interesting recording. Most of the tracks were recorded in the North Carolina studio of engineer Mitch Easter (REM, Pavement, Suzanne Vega), but on this record, Speace’s lead guitarist, James Mastro, sits in the producer’s chair, and one wonders if he was too close to these songs to make the tough editing decisions that would have made this an A recording instead of a strong B-plus.
The dark, irresistible title track is winning Speace a lot of attention, and with good reason. Unlike some of the songs on the record, “The Killer in Me” feels like it was born rather than crafted, like it flowed naturally out of Speace’s broken heart. There is nothing superfluous in the mix: Speace’s vocals, the backup instrumentation and Ian Hunter’s harmony vocals all work together to create the song’s raw, powerful vibe.
Speace goes for a more upbeat pop approach with “Better,” co-written with Jenny Bruce and Jon Vezner. The track sounds almost like a Mary Chapin Carpenter hit, complete with the scale-climbing bridge and feisty-gal lyrics. Producer Mastro takes more chances on “Blue Horizon,” some that pay off (Wurlitzer electric piano and Wah pedal) and some that don’t (trombone and cornet). The instrumentation on “This Love,” another country pop number with Top 40 potential, feels like less of a stretch and provides the right backdrop to the sorrowful lyrics.
The next tune, “Haven’t Learned a Thing,” is one of Speace’s best. Her contralto is backed beautifully by her fingerpicked guitar and Jane Scarpantoni’s subtle cello lines. The lyrics are both universal and poetic:
I have failed and I have fallen, cried till I was bawling
Been down so low my face was on the tiles
Where the cold against my lips, hollow like your kiss
Was empty as a North Dakota mile.
The record hits full stride about halfway through. The haunting, utterly effective “Storm Warning,” featuring Speace’s guitar, light strings and percussion, takes the listener back to the pain and horror of wars gone by. The repetitive lyrics—“this is gonna hurt, this is gonna hurt”—and sparse percussion drive home the song’s mournful message.
The mood lightens a bit with the catchy “Something More than Rain,” and then Speace and the band cut loose on the rockabilly “Would I Lie.” After a couple of throwaway numbers, the record gets back on track with “I Met My Love,” a beautifully dreary original that sounds like a traditional tune.
The Killer in Me presents a talented artist who seems to be hitting her songwriting stride. The 13 tracks could probably have been pared down to a tighter, more even-keeled 10. But Amy Speace definitely has something to say, and fans of country twang won’t want to miss this record.
Simone Solondz, who lives in Providence, R.I., is former editor of Acoustic Guitar magazine.