"What is the blessing for taking our lives," pianist Rachael Sage sings, "so that we won't become our enemies' wives?"
Martyrdom isn't a novel topic for a pop song. Tori Amos, to whom Sage is often compared, broached the issue on her 1992 single "Crucify." Amos bravely expresses her guilt and repression in the language of her father, a Methodist minister, as she seeks to reconcile spiritual and sexual satisfaction.
In her upbringing, sex and moral shame are inseparable, and her words are planted in both realms. She questions her indoctrination, but she can't escape it. "I've been raising up my hands/Drive another nail in," she concludes, "Got enough guilt to start/ my own religion." It's rich territory, and she has spent much of her career exploring it.
Sage, who claims a family tree full of Russian cantors, comes from a different direction. On "93 Maidens," from her new album, "The Blistering Sun," she assumes the voice of a Warsaw girl who committed suicide to avoid being raped by Nazis. In between bursts of emotive Ashkenazi instrumentation, the narrator musters the strength to address her mother and God before she dies.
It's the heaviest song on the disc, and it's not without its flaws. Sage forces the word "heaven" into an awkward pronunciation to get the rhyme right, and the pleas to Mama are a bit overwrought. But in conjuring a child faced with a terrible choice, Sage does what she can to illuminate a life cut short. In the girl's final moments, she doesn't see herself as a victim. She is resolute in her decision, and seeks God without anger.
The New York singer-pianist is nothing if not resolute. She got a four-track for her Bat Mitzvah, and got comfortable recording herself at a young age.
She started her own record label – MPress – and has put out seven albums in 10 years.
Through perseverance, networking and a strong work ethic, Sage has gotten good and she's gotten noticed – all without much help from a music industry that doesn't have much room for women who'd rather spend their downtime dabbling in other arts than shilling their work.
There's a potent mix of everywoman and exotic bohemian in her persona, but listeners take to her because of the slick pop and fresh rhythms in her music, and the strength and vulnerability in her lyrics. Her style is easily accessible to any ear, but she moves among influences – Elton John and Ani DiFranco, showtunes and klezmer – often enough to stay a step or two ahead.
Sage opens "Older" with a familiar-sounding question: "If I am only for myself, who will be for me?" She twists Rabbi Hillel's words, but she returns to the twin principles of faith and love. And that's where it's most evident that those frequent comparisons to Tori Amos miss the vital differences between them, prizing form over content.
Where Amos calls attention to the rift between pleasure and piety, Sage just blends them without comment. There's room for both ways of seeing the world, and there's room for two redheaded pianists. Really, there is.
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Worth watching is New York singer-songwriter Rebecca Pronsky, who plays World Cafe Live on June 17.
The arrangements on her 2004 EP, "The Early Hours," are too tentative, but she's had a few years to break them in, and a few promising moments – the self-aware indignation of "Empty," the warm longing of "Waterways" – hint at better things to come.
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