[ALT-COUNTRY] Try describing the sound of your favorite singer's voice. Tricky, huh? Writers often compare singers to other, better-known ones because it's easy, and even the best vocalists betray their influences: similar phrasing here, a borrowed inflection there. But Portlander Paula Sinclair thoroughly disarms that critical commonplace, because no other voice I know sounds quite like hers. It's a lived-in, grown-up instrument—deep and sturdy, with a fine grain to the finish, and long notes sustained into a vibrato that quavers like a hummingbird's wing.
Sinclair's new collection, Steady Girl, matches that vocal clarity to a clear-eyed creative vision; it's almost a concept album, portraying a resilient woman steeled by sadness but defiantly guarding her heart. Sinclair and returning producer Rob Stroup, who also sings simpatico harmony, round up a stellar backing band, featuring gifted stringed-instrument wielders Tim Ellis, Tony Furtado, Paul Brainard and Arthur Parker. Keyboardist Jean-Pierre Garau, amazingly, coaxes fresh tones from his Hammond B-3 organ and Drew Shoals' supple drumming sensitively underpins the songs.
Each track on Steady Girl (five written by Sinclair alone) stands comfortably alongside a sped-up cover of Steve Earle's "Fearless Heart." The record contains only three ballads, but they're weighty ones: the statement-of-purpose title track, and devastating chronicles of dissipating relationships in "Drifting" and "Something Blue." A couple of midtempo numbers, like the nostalgic "Blue-Eyed Kentucky Boy" add a nice country touch, while the rockers are fist-pumping singalongs, especially when the stutter-step pre-chorus of "Medicine Burn" opens up into the rollicking chorus.
Sinclair's recent work adapting poems to music has heightened her lyrics' verbal precision, inspiring striking, counterintuitive images—silence, for example, likened to an avalanche in "Drifting." Meanwhile, her humor shows in homespun truisms like the one that closes the disc: "You can't satisfy your sweet tooth with just one sin." Listeners disappointed by Lucinda Williams' recent records should point their car wheels down this outstanding album's gravel road.
Paula Sinclair plays Saturday, March 28, at Lola's Room. 8 pm. $12 advance, $15 day of show. 21+.