Nothing wrong with being blessed with a famous musical name, even if you’re missing one of the letters of one’s more renowned musical counterpart as celebrated Boston singer-songwriter Sarah Mendelsohn is. It’s close enough that her promotional material can get our attention with a headline like “Not your grandmother’s Mendelssohn!” But on her long awaited full length debut If, there’s no doubt that the depth of her voice, the stylistic diversity of her musical palette (pop, rock, country, reggae/ska, a rap feature, the works) and the poetry of her lyrics makes the attention getting reach to the classical composer quite unnecessary.
Mendelsohn’s emergence with her own dynamic, highly collaborative ensemble comes after years of being in a wide variety of other bands, serving the vision of others but gathering chestnuts of multi-genre inspiration along the way. She’s been a drummer and harmony singer for years around Boston – most recently with the cleverly named Duppy Conquerers, a popular nine-piece Bob Marley tribute band that was put together by Jeff Robinson, one of the singer’s bandmates in Shy Five, the band she co-founded in college and where she cut her teeth as a drummer and songwriter. The Marley connection no doubt inspired one of If’s happiest, quirky and compelling numbers, the brass-fired ska delight “Ping in My Belly.” Mendelsohn’s other endeavors include Paved Country and the kids band Rubber Biscuit.
With that background, it’s clear that Mendelsohn is a well-traveled musical soul who’s done pretty much everything on the road to her powerful breakthrough as a force in indie rock. One of the remarkable aspects of If is the fact that its emotional narrative takes us all the internal places a heart can travel, but in a cool, non-linear, darting, zig zag fashion. Taking hold of our hearts with her emotionally rangy voice, she paints her tales of joy, sorrow, sinking, lamenting, hoping and overcoming as if life is an endless, non-linear river of challenges, defeats, attempts, survival and all the things that make it worth living. Sometimes, as on the opening number, the ominously titled “Drowning,” she’ll underscore the rawness of pain with moments of up-tempo energy (in this case, Caribbean rock flavored), as if to say she’s hurting now but will learn from her mistakes and get things right in the future.
Highlights abound throughout If. A countrified rave up like “Blind Side” belongs right up there with anything Miranda Lambert or any younger female singer in the genre is cooking up these days. It’s a defiant tune about trusting one’s heart over one’s head, damn the consequences you know are going to follow. “No Man’s Land” is a bright, mid-tempo rocker, a colorful story of wistful regret, reflecting those exact consequences when don’t realize you have it all until after you’ve let it go.
One of the more curious (but no less embraceable) tunes is “My Armour Opened,” which features Kabir Son’s lengthy, expository rap. It’s the perfect way to add hipster energy to what is essentially a traditional pop/rocker about pain and trust and the wisdom that comes after the healing. Mendelsohn’s journey involves an ongoing series of life lessons. Long after she emphatically declares, Phoenix-like, that “I Will Rise” no matter what, she’s still tackling the challenges, the crazy unpredictable ups and downs of even a strong relationship on “Roiling Sea.”