Trying to Fly
Trying to Fly, Music CD by Naomi Ashley
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk
I’ve been listening to Naomi Ashley’s CD Trying to Fly over and over this winter, the way I read poetry chapbooks before I review them. This repeated listening turns a new album into a familiar and beloved album, offering a series of favorite songs in a layered listening process. “Chinatown on Christmas Eve” gave me a break from carols and covers on the radio while creating a holiday atmosphere in an unexpected place:
Jasmine tea and almond cookies
Inside a brightly-lit bakery
The owner sweeps around our feet
I guess it’s time to hit the street…
And then the lovely philosophical plunge: “My fortune says, ‘Stop seeking. You have found it.’” We don’t expect this—they are almond cookies, not fortune cookies—so the “fortune” is found within, in the lighted neighborhood and the joy of the moment.
The title and opening song sets up the identification of bird and singer: “Little bird, beat your wings on the cage / You keep trying to fly / Who knows better than me? / I keep trying to fly.” This is reinforced by repetition and changed up by lilt and variation, so it doesn’t get old; it gets even. “Slow Dance” is a sexy, forlorn love song with a smooth, steady pulse, and a kind of wry humor from self-knowledge: “She just wants to slow dance, she’s not much for romance, she just wants to lose herself…” This one is balanced a little later by the cautionary “Pretty Boys.”
“Jennie Wise” is a poignant lament for a lost baby. The lyric that grabbed me and pulled me into the sad narrative was “A disappointed soul gets back in line.” With songs like this one, singer-songwriter Naomi Ashley takes the wise risk of sentimentality. Heartbreak happens. How do we deal with it? One way is by saying so, honestly, in simple words. In songs, music softens the blows of these words, truths, and, as Shakespeare put it, “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”
Naomi Ashley wrote all but one of the songs on Trying to Fly. “Promise to Keep”—the story of ex-lovers meeting at a funeral—is by Tim Polk. I love its awkward situation, lyrics that actually include the word “awkward,” and its charming refrain: “Everybody got to care / Lilac in the air / Deciding what to wear…” Ashley inhabits this character at the funeral, and it’s like we’re all there, caring for everybody, especially her, the one who has to hide some of her own deep caring.
And my newest favorite from Trying to Fly is “Niagara Falls,” an edgy, whimsical piece that takes us—yes!—over the edge. Maybe it was the recent images of Niagara Falls frozen during the polar vortex, but I kept punching repeat on this one to hear these lyrics:
They say each life is a force of nature
Carving this world over years and years
With moods like tides, hearts like glaciers
Flooding this river with their joy and tears
You know I went over it in a barrel
I survived it, falling down those water walls
Now nothing’s the same, and I can’t deny that
It’s kind of nice but it’s no Niagara Falls
Just like Emily Dickinson, Ashley makes powerful use of the “it” here. If “it” is the actual waterfall, then why is it “no Niagara Falls”? Well, that’s part of the casual humor. After such a wild and risky joyride, to say nothing can compare is understood, but what was “it” really—the falls, the brink of despair, love itself? The next verse gives a variation: “You know I crossed over it on a wire / I made it, staring down those water walls.” In the middle of the song, Ashley asks some important questions about power:
How much power would come from all of us falling,
Falling one hundred eighty three feet down?
How much power would they find appalling
‘Cause we’re lighting up this whole damn town?
Indeed, Niagara Falls has been repeatedly harnessed for hydraulic and hydroelectric power. How far will we go with that? And if the power is metaphorical, how far will we go before we appall ourselves? And if the power is inner power, the power of love, a thrilling way to fall, isn’t it great we’re lighting up the whole damn town with it? All these things are possible in “Niagara Falls.” In the last verse, we see Niagara Falls as a “her,” not an “it,” shining in all kinds of light. Or is this “her” a woman who went over the falls in the past? Who crossed on a tight wire? I keep listening, partly in joy (voice, guitar, plinking keyboard!) and partly to find out.
You can listen, too, over and over like me, at ReverbNation, or find the CD at CD Baby or Ashley’s website.
Or, if you live in the Chicagoland area, you can hear her live this Sunday, January 19, 2014, at 7:00 p.m. at The Studios at SPACE, 1245 Chicago Avenue, Evanston.
Photos of Ashley by Paul Goyette
CD jacket design by Spilled Ink Press
CD engineered by Little School Street Studio
Mixed & Mastered at Joyride Studio