I had the opportunity two weeks ago to hear Lisa Couto and Ray Cooke perform at the Aloha Cafe at the Seamen’s Church Institute in Newport. It was an informal show. The two had just taken the winter off after completing two new recordings: Couto’s “Not Going Under” and Cooke’s “Good Life.” With little more than two acoustic guitars, they shared their talent, love and chemistry, with a small but appreciative audience.
“Not Going Under” is a new direction for Couto. Previously working under the group name Most People, she honed a decidedly tasty R&B groove. Here she takes an acoustic singer songwriter approach. The music is simple and straight forward embellished here and there with flute, violin, cello, xylophone as well as very tasteful guitar solos from Cooke and solid bass and drums on some, but not all, tracks. The one nod to Couto’s previous incarnation is “Beauty” which features her rough sweet vocals punctuated by a taut saxophone courtesy of Joe Meo.
Couto is in fine voice throughout. Benefiting nicely from multi-tracking, she adapts her melismatic soulful twists and turns to great affect resulting in satisfying straight ahead rock on the title cut and “Not Going Under”. Her nuanced vocals especially shine in the gorgeous mid-tempo “Sunrise”. Cooke and Couto duet on the uptempo call and response of “Elsie”, while oddly, Cooke takes the vocal lead on the albums final cut “Dark Angel.”
This is grown up music in the best sense. Couto’s lyrics reflect the complexity of life and love and the simplicity we all long for. She sets the tone at the start with the opening track “Your Hand,” which explores how the vulnerabilities of love exact their price even as we declare our independence from it.
“Some things are meant to be
You are a part of me
Love is always free,
Shouldn’t it be?”
In “Sweeter Things” we’re reminded that life is richest in its contrasts and that our best experiences are lived in the moment, and shared.
“It’s all the same,
You take that train.
The joy and the pain find you either way”
“Not Going Under” reflects Lisa Couto’s perseverance, tempered with insight and experience. It’s a deep record that is richer with repeated listening.
While Couto’s lyrics provide clarity and nuance, it is the music on Cooke’s album “Good Life” that offer that level of detail. With almost entirely acoustic guitar (there is electric guitar on one cut, flute on another) and subtle backing vocals and occasional percussion provided by Couto, this is a difficult kind of record to pull off. But, Cooke has a strong voice and a real winning way with a guitar. His songs often have lovely chord progressions heard in “Good Life”, sweet harmonic filigree from “Come Out and Play”, even a nice electric blues tinged hook in “Heaven Sent”.
Cooke’s lyrics however are ambiguous, ambivalent and often contradictory within the same verse. Love for Cooke seems to be at its most passionate when it is ending. The title cut capture this best when the singer, driving home late one Friday night, debates not returning to his lover because he wants the good life. After a litany of what he wants and needs in a woman, he ultimately returns to a woman who clearly offers none of these.
“If I stay here very much longer
I’m gonna shut down inside as a man.”
It is impossible to tell if he is honoring a commitment, being a martyr or hiding something equally lacking in himself. Through song after song, this unreliable narrator can’t seem to give without taking away. On “Such A Fool”, Cooke can’t distinguish between his lover’s inherent evil and her beautiful mind, while at the same time he questions his own foolishness for not taking her - “She should be yours by now.” Is this the love of his life or the worst thing that could have almost happened? By the time you get to the final song - what appears to be a straight forward declaration of love - at least for me, the singer’s sincerity seem impossible to trust. If Cooke’s intention is to reflect the complexity of his emotions, the result feels more like confusion.
In addition to talent, there is a chemistry between these two artists and a potential dialogue to be pursued. One of the strongest songs on “Not Going Under” is one that Couto co-wrote based on a poem by Nicole Albelo. As with the album’s title song, “Drop a Line”, with its strong back beat and direct turns of phrase put me in mind of Fleetwood Mac. Part of what made the collaboration of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks so interesting and long lived was their very distinct male and female perspectives. In that dialogue they found a balance that illustrated their own concerns even as their contrasting points of view illuminated something universal about all relationships. I think the seeds of such a dialogue are here - certainly both albums provide much enjoyment, food for thought and, particularly in the case of Couto, nourishment for the soul.