Rachel Roberts is Akron's perkiest folk-rock troubadour. Wearing a little black hat as she sits at the Upstairs Gallery above Musica (the site of her CD-release performance this Saturday), she talks enthusiastically about her new album, Lightning Loves the Kite, as if it were hanging on the gallery walls.
"This new record felt more like art," she says happily. "On [2005's] Ripe 'N' Juicy — I won't say that album was innocent, because there are a lot of sexual undertones in it — but at the same time, it was more of a young person singing about love and heartbreak and lemon wine. Back then, the flower was just sitting there, waiting to open. Now I feel that on Lightning Loves the Kite, the flower is just beginning to open. The sun is just starting to break its surface."
The album definitely has some of Roberts' creative luminosity and sugary disposition. The record's 16 tracks weave beautifully lo-fi and lyrical guitar ballads with poetic tales of wrens, storms, kites and unrequited love — sounding like Grace Slick returning to Wonderland. It's the same sound and disposition she's showcased in the past five years at venues like the Northside, the Matinee, the Barking Spider and the Winchester, as well on two national tours.
But Lightning Loves the Kite conquers new musical territory. It's a stripped-down affair, mostly utilizing guitar, piano and Roberts' expansive vocal range. With its folkloric artwork by Cleveland illustrator Pita Brooks and song titles like "The Pest of the Monk" and "Master of the Universe," it feels like a fairy-tale homage to the theatrical and romantic sides of Kate Bush. Then there are tunes like "The Parallel Photosphere" and "DANGER!" that growl like PJ Harvey's 4-Track Demos, capturing a raw emotion and aggressive indie-rock vibe you wouldn't expect from Roberts, who's sipping a Red Stripe and musing about the album's sound.
"Some of the songs are definitely harder," she admits. "Sometimes they sound like Alanis Morissette; other times they are more operatic or lyrical like Joni Mitchell. 'Maudlin Bird' actually sounds like acoustic Led Zeppelin to me, and 'Dream Puddle' is more of psychedelic song, something Pink Floyd would do."
The album is polished with this classic sound and was recorded on analog tape at Rantoul, Illinois' Pieholden Suite Sound, owned by former Wilco member Jay Bennett, who died on May 24. "I recorded it with one of his friends, Matt DeWine, who will continue to run the studio," says Roberts.
Roberts will perform two sets of solo material, split up by a multimedia, musical-theater-style interpretation of the album. When the performance piece ends, Roberts will retire to the Upstairs Gallery and play a VIP set with her other outfit, Rachel's Secret Stache, a retro dance-rock band that also includes drummer Brian Parsons, bassist Joe Golden and guitarist Dave Andrews. The afterparty will give hardcore fans a chance to mingle with Akron's sweetest singer-songwriter, while getting a sample of the band's upcoming album The Brown Bag, slated to be released in September.
"Things can be very powerful when you're alone and by yourself, just an individual trying to give all your energy to the audience," she says. "But when you have three other people on the stage with you, it's like your combined forces become this energy temple. We give it out, but we receive it right back too."