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This is SWANK! - by doreen peri

OK, so I got this new SWANK CD in the mail the other day. René Lawrence sent it to me, asked me to listen. I had only heard him play once on an e-mailed .mp3, the quality of the recording not being all that good, though I remember thinking he was a really fine guitarist. But that first listen didn't compare to this. I don't know what they're gonna call this untitled album but if I could have a vote, I'd like it if it were called "The Muse," because that song of Annie's is huge. Annie Benjamin is a fluid fountain of lyric and melody; her voice is strong, and the desire to listen over and over took me over with each song. 

I listened to "String Man" written by Clay January & René, heard a Segovia influence in René's guitar and Annie's got such versatility in her voice. She scats like Ella! Her tones are crystal and resonant.  René does some fine maneuvers on the fret board while they're voices blend in harmony. This is pure poetry.

Hearing Annie's "Breathe" is like breathing itself. Her voice echoes itself in reflective lyrical tones. This is a heartfelt love song with a mellowness to it that moves through the soul, Annie's voice reminds me of fine blown glass as she breathes "in and in again," exhaling poetry. "And if I told you" that this song takes "my breath away" would you hear me? Would you listen? Ah, it does. It does! Toward the end, René hits harmonics on guitar and Annie plays her voice like a well tuned instrument. His fine technique passionately accompanying, it's like two birds doing a dance in flight, weaving in and out of clouds, their wings looping around each other.

"Bayou Boy," another January tune, should be a classic folk ballad. Annie's voice is gravelly passionate and René tells the story with a punctuated folk rhythm -- "Come on back son and raise your babies on the Bayou." Their  unison and contrapuntal fingerpicking is superb. Any "hillbilly Cajon queen" will dig this one.

And then there's "Snow"! Annie's poetic lyrics are sung sweet with a Joni Mitchell tone sending a chill up my spine. I felt the cold snow, the warm love, the longing. There is well written metaphor in these lyrics -- "Were you scared of something baby or were you just hungry for more." This piece seethes with all the joy and pain of love. There is the anticipation, there is fulfillment, there is loss and memory.  "Do you think it will snow tonight?/ I wish my heart would be still like the world when it's covered with a blanket of white." Damn, I wish I wrote that. But ah, and then she remembers last spring.  Last spring when there was Love under a tree, branching out, roots firm, but it's winter now and she has learned that seasons come and go, just as love will. "It looks like snow but it's probably freezing rain/ Even though it's April it seems like winter's back again." And yet I hear so much hope in this song.

In "Girl Like You," René's voice blends with Annie's as if the two were simultaneously created to be perfectly fitting jigsaw pieces. These two voices were born for each other. When he picks and fingers the entire fret board, Annie's flute mimics echoes and regrets, harmonizing with jazz riffs. The end of this piece has a twist and a grin and you can't help smiling big with the impact 'cause this tune's pretty darn catchy.  Using René's usual wit and charm, he makes light of the heavier and more difficult parts of human relationships making the truths in the lyric much more poignant and dynamic.

Annie's "The Muse" is a tantalizing treat! This is lyrical poetry at its finest. Her voice like a wailing siren, crying emotion with every sustained syllable. René's slide guitar weeps in accompaniment, so mellow, so pure! "Night is a lover dressed in red/ Her shadowy arms embrace her prey/ To an evil web of deception by day/ The night is a lover dressed in grey/ And love is the answer dressed in red/ Balancing on a tightrope thread/ Miss a step and you're flirting with death/ Oh and love is a dancer dressed in red." This tune is "naked starlight and stolen jewels" – a treasure! Did Annie say Buffy St. Marie or Laura Nyro has influenced her work? I hear echoes of both. René's guitar sets the stage like a theatrical sound track for some of the most engaging lyrics I have ever heard. I see this music in vivid Technicolor, blues and voilets bringing down the sun.  I don't know Annie's muse, but I suspect she or he is directly connected by a nerve thread to the center of her heart.

"I've Forgotten How to Talk" is another Annie song which offers her the opportunity to display her exceptional voice range. Their guitars blend seamlessly as Annie's phrasing and annunciation is punctuated by René's excellent rhythmic and technically proficient guitar work, carrying both bass & lead melody, "Never the reasons, only the rhymes." There's another singer out there who Annie reminds me of but I can't think of who it is and that's OK because she's Annie, all her own unique Poet and expressionist.  Do I hear some Fred Neil and Tim Buckle influences in René? Yes, I think I do. I may be wrong but one thing I have never done is to forget how to talk. So I'll just speak up and guess this is possible.

The smooth classical intro on Annie's "Darker Shade of Blue" ushers in a jazzy narrative ballad. René's got those diminished chords perfected and fingerpicks this one Chet Atkins style.  There is so much passion in the sweet blend of arpeggio chords, Annie's voice lamenting hopeful remembrances with scat and staccato. It's as if René's adept finger movements around the frets could combine and unite in another spiritual dimension to bring whoever she's remembering back.

"Outlaw," a rhythmic blues piece with lyrics by the Outlaw himself proclaims the lifestyle for what it is, a journey of looking over your shoulder and the skills it takes to live underground through tongue-in-cheek references. "Everybody's running from some secret crime." Annie's flute dances on this cut.

The last piece in this collection is Annie's "Wires." This tune flows with metaphoric images, dual guitars are strummed and picked with masterful arpeggio and harmonic tones. "When you live in a world where buildings touch tremendous heights," Annie's vocals can get you through the night.

One of the most endearing things about this CD is it's graceful simplicity. No elaborate orchestration. No electronic enhancements. Just René and Annie. Two guitars and a flute. Listening is like fine dining with close friends. Each cut, a small course tastefully prepared. When you finish, you are full and satisfied but remember the carefully prepared flavors and can't wait to enjoy it another time. There's nothing left to say but get this CD. Hurry. It is a delicacy.