Pieces of a Life

A Real Piece of Work
Heidi Howe (ear X-tacy Records)

By Tim Roberts

Heartbreak. We've all been there, sometimes more than once. It's as much a part of life as breathing and calls from telemarketers during dinner. The Woman Who Plays Upon the Red Guitar is back to remind us about it, but she also tells us that we have one weapon against it: wit, scalpel-sharp and ready to slice. Wit disarms the pain and shoos the ghosts away. It's what helps the healing to begin. Most of the songs on A Real Piece of Work from Louisville's Heidi Howe are about heartbreak and dealing with the aftermath, but the wit in her lyrics offsets the pain, and a couple of other tracks remind us there are more things in life worth worrying about than people who are careless with love.

This follow-up to Howe's successful 1999 debut The Nature of My Wrongs is co-produced by her, Bryan Hurst, and Jeff Carpenter. It also features many of the same local performers who helped out on Nature: violinist Peter Rhee, bassist Jim Baugher, guitarist Hurst and Tim Krekel, one of Howe's idols. Among the talent joining them this trip is Butch Morgan on guitar, David Barrickman on keyboards, Ian Thomas on steel guitar, and Donn Adams and Michael Murphy on horns.

Much of what you will hear on Piece is straight-ahead country, especially the explosive opening track, "Better Advertised," and others, including "Ex's Baggage," "Cruisin' for a Bruisin'" and "Thorn in My Side," a duet between Howe and former 100 Acre Wood member Nate Thumas. There's gentle pop with "Fire in Her Heart" and "For Your Body," and slow-burn soul in "Haven't Met You Yet." Howe also revisits a selection from Nature, "King of the Vinyl," a tribute to Gene King and his King's Record Shop, which used to be on Jefferson Street. This time, with the addition of backing vocals from Robbie Bartlett and Susan O'Neil, the song becomes more of a benedictory hymn to the gentle greatness of people who were once in our lives, whose handprints we feel on hearts as we tell stories about them to others.

The production is cleaner and tighter than Nature, but Howe's lyrics still have the same snap. In "Better Advertised," she describes herself to a potential lover as if she's selling a slightly used car - "Plush interior, low miles, and just slightly used / I'll make your friends jealous, baby, when I take you way too fast." In "If I Were a Man," she turns the country-folk standard "If I Were a Carpenter" on its ear by asking, "If I were fifty years older, baby, would you still love me / If each time I went to kiss you I had to take out all my teeth?" She also asks the unanswerable in "Buy, Buy" with "why's the coffee table a magnet for my toe?"

The cover on A Real Piece of Work is a picture of an open box loaded with the knick-knacks of a life - pictures, a pair of shoes, a souvenir glass, dried flowers, small toys - all ready to be hidden away or disposed of. We try to forget about them. Sometimes we can't. But Howe's work is a reminder that we are more than the sum of our experiences and our mistakes. Sure, we're full of doubts, we ask silly questions of the cosmos. Still, somehow, we wobble through it all.

That's what makes each of us a real piece of work.