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Niela Miller - Songs of Leaving

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Artist: Niela Miller

Album: Songs of Leaving

Label: The Numero Group

Review date: Apr. 29, 2009

Niela Miller sings in rich tones, with a studied yet slightly amateur vibrato. Bluesy, a little theatrical, she sounds on these 1962 recordings as though she could have been the cool aunt of one of the crystal-voiced post-Joni singer-songwriters featured on another Numero Group release, the Ladies From the Canyon compilation. Like the artists on that comp, Miller’s songs and writing represent exemplary specimens of lady-folk rather than a new species. And Miller’s work, like the best of the songs on that anthology, stands out in large part because of its sad, eerie quality.

The recordings presented on Numerophon’s Songs For Leaving (a limited vinyl and MP3-only release) come from a single warped master of Miller’s sole recording session, and crackle and hiss accordingly. Her careful, lovely finger-picking is clearly inspired by ample Bleecker Street blues listening parties and the songs’ world-weariness nicely evokes Fred Neil. Miller seems to disregarded the titular dictum of “You’ve Got To Know How To Love,” as her lyrics are devoted largely to worthless boyfriends, husbands and dads. Indeed, Miller wrote from experience: boyfriend Billy Roberts cribbed her song “Baby Don’t Go To Town” and turned it into a ditty called “Hey Joe.” Miller’s version doesn’t sound that much like “Hey Joe,” thanks to a sprightly cadence at the end of each line, snappier lyrics, and the downer-novelty of a female singer bearing witness to yet another bad man. One of the few songs not about dudes, “Goodbye New York,” is a charming kiss-off to her grimy, over-priced hometown.

Excellent – if not unique – throughout, Miller’s album proves itself a worthy subject for resurrection. Recent years have seen some documentation of the New York folk scene’s callous misogyny (think about Dylan’s awful treatment of Joan Baez throughout Don’t Look Back), and it’s not surprising that Songs For Leaving dematerialized over the years, along with her songwriting credit for “Hey Joe.” It’s refreshing to see another talented woman saved from mere rock-trivia status. The album conjures dual sensations of regret and injustice. One song, “Daddy’s Gone to Jail,” addresses prejudice explicitly, but one gets the sense that Miller, like other women of her time and place, did not necessarily get what she deserved.

By Talya Cooper

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