Oleander, the overdue debut LP from the sharp Durham songwriter and stunning singer Skylar Gudasz, is chockablock with talented guests. Members of the North Carolina Symphony sit alongside a who's who of local session players and vocalists—pop crooners Brett Harris and Django Haskins, band-leading veterans Brad Cook and Leah Gibson, experienced sidemen Jeff Crawford and James Wallace.
Chicago free jazz giant Ken Vandermark breaths between and beneath lines with his horn, and college-rock demigod Norman Blake, of Teenage Fanclub fame, murmurs gently behind Gudasz during "Friday Night Blues." Chris Stamey, a North Carolina musical institution with few equals in influence, is the wonder behind the curtain here, the producer who's been helping Gudasz orchestrate these dozen songs for years.
But when these largely perfect forty-seven minutes click to an end following the exquisite drift of "Car Song," only one inviolable star remains—as it should be, Skylar Gudasz. These songs deftly explore adoration and abandonment, lust and loneliness, friendship and fallibility. Gudasz loads them with punchy quips ("Don't ask me if I believe in God/I believe in Gibson guitars) and ponderous gems ("I'm not saying I want to be there with you always/'cause honey you know there ain't no such thing.") And she sings all of these lines with a practiced vocal perspicacity, hitting every word so as to make it the most effective. Nothing seems arbitrary.
Gudasz's antecedents are no mystery. She summons Joni Mitchell throughout Oleander, particularly in the twisted acoustic romp of the ebullient "Just Friends" and the Blue-like piano fantasy of "About Great Men." You can trace the lessons of Laurel Canyon and Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Jayhawks and perhaps even The Shins. "I'm So Happy I Could Die" and "I'll Be Your Man" are entirely bittersweet, brilliant reminders that Aimee Mann hasn't made an essential record (or one this good, really) during this millennium.
Just as she eclipses her guests, though, Gudasz largely resists the temptation of idolatry, teasing her tastes just enough that these songs don't mimic past masters. Yes, "Just Friends" wades through the legend of Joni. But in its final minute, when the horns and Gudasz tangle in a subtle little climax, you hear an audacity, perhaps even an aggression, that Mitchell often cloaked. And Gudasz is as good smirking over snarling electric guitars, as on "I'm So Happy I Could Die," as she is confessing quietly over the radiant, weepy piano of "Aviary." With Oleander, you get the sense—the energizing, intoxicating sense—that Gudasz is deploying all of these predecessors and these styles and wielding them for her own purposes, not being used by them or merely checking off boxes on some folk-rock-reference Wiki.
The most unfortunate thing about Oleander, really, might be that it's finally finished and available after being in the works for so long. Gudasz's songs seem to be personal testimonials, little life reflections that she then fretted over, fussed with, and, at last, committed to tape. They take time not just to write and record but, first, to live. That's why they feel so deep, so unapologetic. Still, here's already hoping for the next openhearted, wonderfully wrought batch.