ANNIE DRESSNER – Coffee At The Corner Bar (Proper)

Coffee At The Corner BarA native New Yorker but, for the past nine years, based in Cambridge, Dressner released her debut album back in 2011, immediately indicating that here was an artist whose way with words and melody, couched in Americana but informed with folk and a touch of classic Brill Building pop, was someone whose career was going to well worth following. And so, here she is with her third full-length release, and, while its predecessors were impressive, Coffee At The Corner Bar is her best work to date.

Produced by husband Paul Goodwin who contributes electric guitar, mandolin, bass and assorted keyboards it also features a scattering of guest appearances, the first being Justin Aaronson behind the drums for the album opener ‘Nyack’, a shuffling acoustic, brushed drums number with shades of early Simon & Garfunkel, the song a childhood reminiscence of how she and her brother would visit the Rockland County village and memories of “campfires on a Friday, talent shows with our friends”.

Emily Fraser on harmonies, the fingerpicked patterned ‘Dogwood’ has her beneath the titular tree as she contemplates loss (“Since you’ve been gone/The roots have grown and changed/And nothing’s the same without you”) before ‘Midnight Bus’, an introspective reverie (“Why do I do this to myself/Didn’t want to play in front of anyone else”) co-written with Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws on which he plays electric guitar, that floats on a stream on consciousness from her singing “Run through the characters in my head/Reanalyzing what each one said” to “He always had his telescope/Offering free views of the rings of Saturn/He just wanted you to know/I’d appeal to live in that photograph/If it existed”, the track having a shimmering 60s baroque girl pop aura that perfectly showcases Dressner’s airy, girlish, pure vocals.

Stephen MacLachlan remains on the drums for the acoustic rippling, piano-tinged ‘Beyond the Leaves’ capturing that moment when the heart feels its first stirrings (“I saw you by the riverside with your pretty blue eyes/Running to catch a break from your busy life/I knew I needed you near me”) and of the need to feel the same in return (“Come and fight for me tonight/I just need to see that you wanted me”), only for it to somehow fall apart (“I just don’t understand what happened then… It’s cold at night and I just can’t tell if you could see that I wanted to protect you”).

Dressner also sings in partnership with Polly Paulusma who joins her here on two tracks, the first being the watery fingerpicked ‘Secrets, Tell Me Lies’, another song of a relationship falling apart (“The petals they have all died down/All that’s left is a trace of a rose/A sour taste left in my mouth/A scratch on my hand/From that dying rose”) and keeping up pretences that it’s all fine (“Just say when you want to stop from this pretend life”). Appropriately enough, it’s followed by the thematically linked ‘Pretend’ (“we walked on the path by the ocean, and we weren’t together by then”) that puns on the phrase sea/see changes, the lyrics, from whence comes the album title, sung from the perspective of the one on the losing end as, sitting in the coffee shop, they ask “Why are you here if you’re in love with him?

This downcast look at love and relationships (“It doesn’t look like happiness found you”) continues with the breezily strummed ‘Spotlight’ where she asks “What’s the point if you’ll wind up alone anyway?/Even if you are now comfortable”, concluding that “here we are in the darkness/It is frightening/And we can’t seem to escape”, although in that context its temping to read the line “Take your bag of lies/The show is over” through a political lens.

The album includes her first cover, a wonderful waterfall cascading shimmering guitar version of ‘The Book Of Love’ by The Magnetic Fields that brings a joy not always evident in the original’s somewhat dour vocals. From here things relatively rock up with the shuffling ‘Quiet’ with its potent electric guitar and MacLachlan’s forceful drums, which initially seems to be another inward-looking examination (“I’m always thinking/About where I fall into place”) only to cast such concerns to the wind (“I’m getting tired of wondering/About these things/It doesn’t matter anyway”) while still acknowledging how other people can define who you are (“And the words they told me/They put in my ears/I’m stuck in a box”).

Belying its light musical mood, the folksy protest strummed ‘Look What You’re Doing To Us’ is about actions and forgiveness as it announces “All the headlines are screaming your name in the news/And these rumors about the things you do/I don’t want to believe them, but where the hell are you?”), and proceeds to concern the motives behind betrayal when she sings about how “A hero comes crashing to the ground/Losing power by turning all their love around”, followed up by the bitter “Where will you be then when nobody’s around?/Well, I guess that you thought of it, ’cause look what you’re doing to us/Will it be for the rest of time like you died too?” building to the repeated refrain “What about your daughter? Your mother? Your sister? Our brothers?

Riding an opening keyboards wave that gradually gathers in strength, drawing on weather imagery, ‘Out In The Cold’ returns to self-affirmation in the face of negativity as, while “Like a storm, you have come/And you’ve left me in the cold” and how “You can take all my things, throw them out in your dark, dark cloud”, there’s defiance in “You can huff, you can puff, but you can’t blow me down”.

It’s back then to lost relationships (and perhaps fading memories) for the closing track, Paulusma returning for the paradoxical emotions of the circling fingerpicked ‘Losing You’, a song dealing with processing grief and the oscillation between recovery (“I think I liked it more when I just lost you/I – I think I liked it more when I forgot that you were gone”) and regret (“I look through old photographs/And I saw our house and came home”), quietly expressing a heartfelt ache as, in the final stretch, she sings “A penny here, a feather there/The way I wear my hair/I still play these games in my head” , adding “I still think I’ll see you again/I miss you/Is this what feeling better is?”.

Heartache etched with a lightness of touch, joy mingled with sadness in a sweet melancholia, part cappuccino, part double espresso, this is a real caffeine high.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Nyack’ – official video: