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These Are Not Love Songs the “fortune cookie philosophy” of the Erin Hobson Compactby Tad Wise

Maybe it’s a testosterone thing. Most killer guitar players can’t get over their own chops, aren’t really songwriters, and remain terrified of playing at an appropriate volume. With Erin Hobson it’s a whole different equation. Here’s a young woman with a virtuosity that can thrill an audience, but who chose to collaborate with a partner to find something more important. The resulting band, The Erin Hobson Compact, categorically refuses to be pinned down. Or musically wank. In fact, the contrast between her soft voice and those fat grooves are part of what distinguishes her obvious musicality, with singing that bears a subliminal similarity to Sade, paired with playing traversing Django Reinhardt to the best from decades of rock. In the case of The Compact the music comes first, like hand blowing a bottle and then figuring out exactly what letter gets placed in it.

For this band it’s about finding other sounds, and something else besides “I broke up with my boyfriend/girlfriend!” to sing about. What a concept! The songs are also credited to her partner, Steven W. Ross, who rather humbly claims to make little more than “adjustments,” so that at this juncture his contributions remain a pleasant mystery. It may be their special working relationship that allows them to blur the distinctions between writing and arranging.

Their new release, Fortune Cookie Philosophy, combines characters and voices that suggest a range of styles that could potentially cancel each other out. That’s right—that evil adjective “eclectic” rears its many-pointed head. But there’s also a sound “in there” that is recognizable. The band’s repertoire includes, urban, country, jazz, Latin, and more. Econo-funk grooves, such as found in “Water Signs” or “Material Things,” keep us on our feet with deft drive and effortlessly flowing rhythms. Gary Burke (Joe Jackson, Professor Louie and the Crowmatix) is one of several drumming legends in the Greater Woodstock area: listen to the superb set-up of almost any of these tracks and you know why. And could it be that much of what Steven W. Ross brings to the party, aside from a never-brag/never-sag bass line, is one damn sweet mix? The difference is in the ears. For The Compact goes for what was once part of popular music, but is missing from much of today’s music: color and texture. And to achieve these objectives you have to open up space—not a terribly popular notion in rock today. The difference is immediately noticeable between their first effort, Talk Radio—a fine B&W recording—and Fortune Cookie Philosophy, which is technicolor, baby...

Case and point: “Purple Crayon”—the third track on their new CD—puts this group in a whole new league. Guitars fall back as supporting voices in a spare, stately arrangement of the sort we’d expect of a major talent on a major label. Without breaking ground or re-inventing the wheel, the song simply unfolds with an inexorable dignity. It doesn’t sound like anybody else. Which means, of course, that it sounds exactly like The Erin Hobson Compact, who marry melody, lyrics and grooves for life.

Ross Rice provides a wide open, magisterial piano until the ride-out, which features more tasty licks than a tapas bar. “Purple Crayon” will get The Compact national airplay, I predict, and should by all rights take them to a new level. Of course, it would help if the rest of the record had something similar on it. Guess again.

“This Is Not a Love Song,” is built on a clave pattern. Not Sade, not Michael Franks, not Tito Puente, but possibly informed by them. And finely attuned information, too. I cop an attitude around track five, “Water Signs,” and no sooner than I do that track six nails me with inky pens to a paper white cross:

“So you’re a critic.
I can tell...
By the way that you can offend me so well.
So you’re a critic, another jerk…
Let’s me know after the show
How much better I can do and I know,
That everyone’s a critic
A goddamned cynic,
And I’ll do what I do,
For me not for you.”

Talk about perfect song placement, an under-rated art. “Everyone’s A Critic” fulfills the age-old function of a novelty tune capable of disarming an ornery crowd—a throwback to an earlier scene where audiences actually listened intently to a lyric. Why? Because it’s great fun and oh so, painfully true. Until, that is, violinist extraordinaire Larry Packer takes the solo and once again the ride out brings a sure smile.

I’m beginning to realize why The Compact delivers a great live show. It’s because everyone’s a real player. But unlike so many jam bands, when you listen close there’s actually a song here under the solos.

“What About Me? (What About You?)” might just be the crowd pleaser on this record. It’s total guitar ear candy: A fast Tex-Mex-Caribbean frolic that finishes long before you want it to. “Life,” showcases a singer/songwriter good enough to deserve a hot band. Hobson strikes again with the Sarah McLachlan-esque “So Seriously,” this time hit by a taste of gospel, starting with Pete Levin’s rubato intro—and it feels fine. So much of their record does, in fact, feel so fine that I drove thirty miles with gas at damn near four bucks-a-gallon for a short yak attack over lunch with Erin and Steven at O’Leary’s in Red Hook, (where until recently The Compact played Thurday nights).

Where I discovered the OTHER reason this band might just make it big, namely Erin and Steven are not romantic partners. Or as Steve put it, “we’re very romantic…about our music. Period.”

So after a long, pleasant chat I ask what I feel is the crucial question for them: “What if a high-powered, cigar-chewing manager were to appear before you and say, ‘“Purple Crayon,” Wow! Write me 4 or 5 more songs like that and I’ll make you both stars!’ What would you say?” They both laughed and Erin replied with quoting her own lyric, “I do what I do for me not for you.” ’Nuff said.

The Erin Hobson Compact performs Tuesday April 19 at Jitters, Southington CT, Friday April 29 at La Puerta Azul, Millbrook, and at Mountain Jam 2011, Hunter Mt., June 2-5. Visit www.the-compact.com for more information.



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