There has been a glut of tender folk music in the past few years following the surge in popularity of artists like Big Thief and Phoebe Bridgers. A lot of this music is tasteful but relatively anodyne. There are, of course, exceptions, artists who have managed to transcend the current trend. Katy Kirby did so earlier this year with her promising debut Cool Dry Place; Tomberlin offers up a particularly sparse and reverent strain of this branch of rock; and you can add Alexandra Levy’s project Ada Lea to the list of those that are beginning to separate themselves from the pack. Her new album one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden could easily have faded into the background with all these other perfectly pleasant releases, but Levy’s ear for melody and flair for the dramatic makes for a prime example of how effective this sort of music can be when it’s done this well.
Levy grew up around Montréal and still lives there, but she made her way out to Los Angeles to record last year’s woman, here EP and, eventually, her sophomore album. She produced it with frequent Bridgers collaborator Marshall Vore; Bridgers’ bandmate Harrison Whitford also plays guitar on it. There are backing vocals throughout from the likes of Tomberlin and Common Holly’s Brigitte Naggar and Johanna Samuels, all musicians working in the same milieu. And everything that was encouraging about Ada Lea’s 2019 debut album what we say in private is carried over and enhanced here. Highlights like “for real now (not pretend)”‘s roiling snottiness or the scratchy and satisfying “what makes me sad” suggested Levy could morph into a force to contend with, and indeed she has.
one hand on the steering wheel… is bookended by two of its best tracks, “damn” and “hurt,” which demonstrate how potent Levy’s songwriting has become. On the former, slurry words spill out in a fervor as she struggles to catch up until its defiant chorus slides into place: “Damn the work, damn the music/ Damn the fun that’s missing.” “hurt” is a stunning closer, as Levy circles the drain and plots her revenge in a song that sounds like it can barely get out of bed. “I’m not being dramatic or dark in tone when I say/ Somebody hurt me badly/ Now I’m stuck in a rut/ Now I’m going crazy,” she sings, her voice curling in on itself as she exhibits equal parts contempt and exhaustion.
The album is filled with surprises, where catchy hooks emerge from wallowing twinkles and driving choruses devolve into gorgeous swirls. There are hints of art-damaged ’70s rock, the pastoral glides of the Innocence Mission, Angel Olsen’s more recent gloomy epics, the pinched-nerve shagginess of Whitney. one hand on the steering wheel… isn’t necessarily a showy album, but after a few listens it really opens up and you can hear all the moving pieces that are sputtering away in the background of every song. A lot of thought and intentionality has gone into every moment, and you can feel it. There’s “partner,” which mumbles along until a cascading guitar line turns the song’s weary party narrative into feverish desperation. And “violence,” which swells into one of the album’s most sweeping moments of grandeur, a collision of crisp guitars and drawling harmonies.
It also helps that Levy’s songs are impeccably wordy; sometimes, when she’s really locked-in, it almost sounds like she’s spitting bars. She’s descriptive and generous with the details, little ones that accumulate over time and add up to an impressive picturesque whole. That’s part of what keeps one hand on the steering wheel… from veering into territory that might make it sleepy or indistinct. Levy’s voice is a consistent presence, pushing back against the instruments or guiding them somewhere new. She slips into the pocket easily, on the aforementioned “damn” and on songs like “can’t stop me from dying,” a shadowy pulse that sounds like picking up your pace when you’re the only one on a dark city street.
The album has been positioned as a sort of travelogue of growing up in Montréal. Many of the lyrics deal with watching places pass through the windows of cars and buses and trains, or walking around her block and observing the way life changes slowly and then all too quickly. Levy is proud of her sense of place. On “backyard,” she reflects on what it’s like to stick around where you were raised. “There is something to be said/ About growing up in the neighborhood/ And then staying in that neighborhood,” she sighs. “Even when you finally could leave and explore other places near or far/ But you chose to stay in the place you grew up.” She allows herself to fantasize about leaving. On “writer in ny,” she dreams of splitting her time between the coasts, but she lands on a more comforting scenario that could take place just about anywhere: “Meet me in the park when it’s dark outside/ With a book in hand and a bottle of white/ We’ll talk about it all night.”
Levy seems torn between a desire to keep moving and with nurturing herself by staying put. That’s where the split in the album’s title comes from: one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden. Throughout, Levy depicts herself as being the last one to leave the party or the one that’s afraid of missing out. But she also is learning to be more content with her surroundings, become patient and kind and appreciative of it all. Also on “backyard,” she sings about the always-tantalizing possibility of what’s around the corner: “There is something to be said/ About how we neglect/ The things that are right in front of us every moment/ For the promise of something better/ Far away/ Is more about imagination than escape.” With one hand on the steering wheel…, Levy has made an album that feels both near and far — intimate and direct and also fixated on the potential to do something new with some well-worn tools. She’s certainly achieved that.
one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden is out 9/24 via Saddle Creek.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine’s A Beginner’s Mind
• Mac McCaughan’s The Sound Of Yourself
• Esperanza Spalding’s SONGWRIGHTS APOTHECARY LAB
• Public Service Broadcasting’s Bright Magic
• One Step Closer’s This Place You Know
• The Ophelias’ Crocus
• Absolutely Free’s Aftertouch
• Nao’s And Then Life Was Beautiful
• Joey Purp’s UpLate
• Stranded’s Midnight Sun
• Unto Others’ Strength
• Bummer’s Dead Horse
• Tremonti’s Marching In Time
• Jesse Malin’s Sad And Beautiful World
• Macie Stewart’s Mouth Full Of Glass
• POP. 1280’s Museum On The Horizon
• The Connells’ Steadman’s Wake
• Succumb’s XXI
• Magic Roundabout’s Up
• Anthony Hamilton’s Love Is The New Black
• Vapors Of Morphine’s Fear & Fantasy
• Caleb Landry Jones’ Gadzooks Vol. 1
• BOYS NOIZE’s +/i
• G-Eazy’s These Things Happen Too
• Ashley Shadow’s Only The End
• Cold War Kids’ New Age Norms 3
• Angels & Airwaves’ LIFEFORMS
• X Ambassadors’ The Beautiful Liar
• Natalie Imbruglia’s Firebird
• Third Eye Blind’s Our Bande Apart
• Poppy’s Flux
• Diddy’s Off The Grid. Vol. 1
• Mickey Guyton’s Remember Her Name
• I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute Album To The Velvet Underground & Nico
• Jagjaguwar’s Join The Ritual compilation
• The Specials’ Protest Songs: 1924-2012
• Kari Faux’s Lowkey Superstar Deluxe
• Japanese Breakfast’s SABLE soundtrack
• Steely Dan’s Northeast Corridor: Steely Dan Live!
• Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly Live
• Ringo Starr’s Change The World EP
• Brigid Mae Power’s Burning Your Light EP
• Men Without Hats’ Again (Part 1) EP
• Never Ending Game’s Halo & Wings EP