That 1990s Spirit

In the 1980s and 1990s, women had more room to be tough on the radio. From Natalie Merchant in 10,000 Maniacs to Suzanne Vega to the Bangles to the Cowboy Junkies, female pop stars maintained the memorable hooks and lighter production touch that marked them as, well, pop stars–but they also wrote open, honest, and raw songs themselves, and delivered those hooks with a defiant snarl.

No such luck with many of today’s female pop icons. While they may present an assertive message, it’s often undermined by label-engineered sexualization. But Ann Arbor expatriate Alejandra O’Leary summons that 1990s spirit in spades. She’d fit right in on the FM band with those female stars of late last century.

O’Leary herself is a surprising mixture of influences. Born in Maine to a Colombian mother and an Irish American father, she arrived in Michigan in 2009 at the age of twenty-seven. Although she moved to North Carolina last year for her husband’s work, her musical roots are still firmly planted in Ann Arbor; her band members all live here, and her new record, Heartspace Timepiece, was recorded here. Her musical influences–the Beatles, Morrissey, Elvis Costello–are diverse but share a keen pop songwriting ability. That same skill comes across clearly in her music.

Onstage, O’Leary is a disarmingly sweet presence. Always charmingly dressed, with long straight black hair and a wide smile, she banters with the audience in an unaffected way that encourages the sense of a roomful of friends just hanging out. But batten down the hatches when the music kicks in, because O’Leary is a powerful and unrestrained performer. Her vocals draw you in one moment with a high, breathy tone, and push you away the next with an aggressive howl. Her lyrics often focus on raw topics like moving on and the revenge relationships that happen as a result, and O’Leary sings with a passion that drives the words home. And while she’s not the type to rip off a solo, she’s rarely seen onstage without a guitar.

The act also benefits greatly from her excellent band. The Champions of the West are guitarist Jimmy Sindelar, guitarist/bassist Jamie Church, and drummer Martin Maginity. Maginity’s assured drum work is key here, lending the more rock-oriented tunes an aggressive beat that perfectly complements O’Leary’s energy. Sindelar also does some impressive work. Clearly a guitarist who could easily take the spotlight himself, he drives the action well as a supporting player, providing atmospheric riffs and the occasional blistering solo or fill.

Formerly a more acoustic-oriented solo artist, O’Leary turned toward a harder-edged full-band approach several years ago, and her enthusiasm for the format is obvious. While the final product may be a little softer, a little more alt-rock than rock ‘n’ roll, it’s still well-written music, performed with passion and real talent. It’s pop music done the way pop music used to be–perhaps the way it still ought to be.

Alejandra O’Leary and the Champions of the West play the Crazy Wisdom Tea Room on Saturday, August 30.

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