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A Poignancy of Purpose – “The Last Day of Winter” by George Usher & Lisa Burns

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There’s apparently no end to it. However much you think you’re sufficiently sussed to all that is and has been good and wonderful in this business, a record comes along and trips you up sideways like some smart-assed quick-footed kid on the playground, the difference being, of course, that instead of being pissed about it or feeling humiliated, you get up, dust yourself off and say ‘Thank you very much, I needed that.’ This has happened to me so frequently over the years I’ve been writing for SEM one might think I’d come to expect it, but nope, every time it happens I find myself sitting at a table somewhere, headphones on, marveling in a gasping silence at still another unexpected gem, more often than not mouthing the words ‘This is great!‘ as I just did listening to The Last Day of Winter, self-released April 7th by NY-based singer-songwriters George Usher and Lisa Burns.

If those names sound passingly familiar there’s good reason. Usher’s a veteran of the NY scene from his days with early 80’s band The Decoys as well as stints in the Bongos, Beat Rodeo, and the Schramms, not to mention House of Usher and the George Usher Group (check out “Unfinished Prayer” for a sample) as well as penning songs recorded by Laura Cantrell, Richard Barone, and Edward Rogers. Burns, meanwhile, dates back to the late 70’s in similar circles, with a Craig Leon-produced self-titled debut album as well as time in both Velveteen and The Lovin’ Kind, while her solo albums of late have garnered kudos from the likes of Russell Mael and Phil Manzanera, not the kinds of names everyone gets to throw around. Though it’s never guaranteed that tossing two such pedigreed stalwarts into the same project is going to yield a lastingly memorable result, The Last Day of Winter accomplishes not only that but is also good enough to bury your correspondent’s embarrassment at not being more familiar with these two than I should have been. Enjoyment to this degree always trumps regret.

With its charged Byrdsian pluck, first track “Wake Me When Tomorrow’s Here” quite literally kicks the album off in a spiraling burst of folk-pop optimism, if shaded slightly by whatever it is about today that’s making tomorrow look so desperately promising, a dualism perfectly captured by Dave Schramm’s plangent lead. That double-edged emotionalism is a keystone here – “Lost In Translation,” seemingly downcast, is a clear-eyed reflection of life’s darker hours that maintains a sense of uplift by sneaking it into the lyrics through a contextual back door (“The calm reawakening of a pair of eyes, opening slowly, full of surprise“), the country-inflected “The World That Rested On Your Word” houses a righteous disappointment in a now ex-lover’s betrayal inside a not uncheery acoustic structure that, if you’re not paying attention, you’ll find yourself blithely nodding your head to – a poignancy of purpose this record’s backstory helps explain.

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As is too often the case, the long-story-short villain in that backstory is cancer, the chemo treatments for which left George Usher without the use of his hands for over two years. Unable to lift a guitar or bang on a piano, he met that challenge as any dedicated artist would, by doing whatever he could to maintain the flame, find an outlet during a time when, of all times, one is sorely needed. For Usher, this involved composing the words to these dozen pieces that he then invited Ms Burns to create the music for. Thus, indeed, the forlorn comes wrapped in acceptance (however hard-won, however temporary), the dolorous in the simple miracle – and beauty – of existence itself. The songs on TLDoW bristle and shiver with an honesty of expression, but they’re also damned fine tracks that stand on their own two resilient feet. There is also, amid the occasional fallen tear and stolid defiance, some pure damned fun to be had, even if it does inescapably come tinged with the record’s founding sobriety. “More Than That I Cannot Say” rather takes Billy Bragg and Wilco’s “Walt Whitman’s Niece” and digs those witty, Guthrie-penned lyrical insinuations a tad deeper, the band surging with bar rock brio, no short thanks to the blue-collar naturalism of the Roots’ Captain Kirk Douglas’ guitar work; it really could be Austin, 1973. “My Precious Wisdom” rides a jaunty country piano rhythm that could have been extracted from a Harvest-era session at Broken Arrow ranch, “Dark Blue Room,” with its woozy pedal steel and waltzy tempo is shamelessly Poco-esque had that band had Townes Van Zandt out front (they didn’t, in truth, come close), while “The Ferryman’s Name”‘s bittersweet existential loneliness is dressed in mid-tempo, bass-fed finery, Usher and Burns twining their voices together like they’ve been singing these songs their whole lives. Not ‘fun,’ perhaps, but embroidered with a burnished jangle that doesn’t site itself too many miles outside Athens GA. But in reality, it’s the close-to-the-bone intimacy of the slower tracks that just might stop you in yours.

The quavering sincerity of Ms Burns’s lead vocal vibrato on “Depression Glass,” a double-entendre’d rumination on time’s slow stripping of dreams as if they’re mortal bark, will have you rummaging through the archives for pictures of your grandparents, it’s that personal. “Wasn’t Born to Belong,” a ruminative piano-based ballad that backdates “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” and in the process takes it out of a lonely teenage bedroom and into the broader context of staring at a late night fire and trying to figure out how it was exactly that luck played out in one’s life now that we have nearly the whole rear horizon behind us, tiptoes in on a a quiet highwire, its sentiment one of perfectly delicate balance and therefore heartbreaking as hell. “The Last Day of Winter,” the record’s final track, with Burns’ comforting vibrato once again unfurling as if from an heirloom quilt, a cello lowing like the glottal mystery of life itself and a violin that’s walking through the rafters with the melody, both stringed instruments slow-dancing with an aching clarity of a couple of strummed acoustics and with arguably the album’s richest lyrical outing – “Is that a sunset or a mirage/behind this house and its little garage?” is how the song opens – is pull-out-the-stops lovely, Usher’s gravitas harmonizing on the chorus subtly devastating, the trumpet winding late into the mix like a cameo Chet Baker-as-Gabriel appearance. An intense slice of sumptuous intimacy, its gentle swirl of fatalism is the ideal close to a record that’s been going toe-to-toe with this mortality business the entire time.