By Jeremy Quintin
Writing lyrics is an incredibly challenging aspect of music, especially when realizing how strong the influence of words is over the masses, and how the responsibility of those words cannot simply be erased from the page once they’re out of the mouth. So when an album opens up with a line as strong as, “…one too many fine homes handed up that family tree all tangled in black man’s bones,” then the artist has clearly come to terms with this problem a long time ago. Such is the nature of “Rattle Them Chains,” the recently released album by Chestertown’s very own Pam Ortiz.
Ortiz is a local folk musician who began her career performing with the band Terra Nova. She now writes and performs under her own name alongside her husband Bob Ortiz and various other musicians. Together they have made four albums and have performed for venues as well as events, such as the Chestertown rally for Question Six about a month ago.
Ortiz’s style of folk music carries along at a leisurely country pace, relaxing the listener with effortless piano lines, trumpets, and guitars, as well as clever intermittent uses of violins and saxophones. In fact the display of instrumental options throughout the album is quite impressive, on top of well performed, and definitely keeps the music interesting overall.
However, it can’t be said that Ortiz has fully developed her own style. It’s true that each song has an original melodic rhythm despite the overall slow pace of the album. Yet Ortiz hasn’t written any songs which stands out from the rest, nor can any song itself be described as completely original. With a little effort I could pick out any number of classic tunes from the 60s to 90s and pin it with the same feel that I get from any one of the tracks off this album.
Not that that’s inherently bad. Following a formula is the way bands have always made it possible for listeners of the genre to find them. If bands follow it exceptionally well, then there’s nothing to say they aren’t a good band. At the end of the day, Ortiz is still a great bluesy-folk singer who makes good use of upbeat melodies as well as serious ones. The album has been well mastered so that each instrument is clear, and Ortiz’s voice is pleasant to the ear.
It’s the lyrics that accompany Ortiz’s voice which make the album stand out. Though there isn’t a clear unifying agenda from one song to the next, the words still weave beautiful tales within themselves. Different political, social, and spiritual conundrums get addressed to some extent in each song. While songs like “Rattle Them Chains” brim with social consciousness, highlighting the injustices that we live by as a result of our ignorance, another song like “Coffeehouse Redemption” speaks on the addictions that plague our lives, and “The Conversation” converses on the joys of a personal connection shared between loving souls.
The lyrical content is as clear as it is deep. “Rattle Them Chains,” which comments on unseen inequality, leaves little interpretation when it tells you to, “…check that cellar wall for repression’s residue.” Yet at the same time it is rich with rhetoric that will sit on your mind for some time.
Not every track shares the same level of cleverness, however. “The Heart,” for example, gets a bit tangled up when one verse claims the heart, “…doesn’t know when to walk away,” while the chorus continues to insist that the heart, “…knows more than the wisest of men.” This tangle of disagreeing lines becomes a bit difficult to unravel once wrapped around the listener’s ears.
Despite the handful of problems which the album holds, these are greatly outnumber by the collection of wins in each song. If folk music is your cup of tea, go grab your own copy of “Rattle them Chains” on Ortiz’s bandcamp page.