Amy Ray's second solo album, Prom, explores the dance between gender and sexuality, man and woman, youth and adulthood, authority and rebellion. The setting is the South, both suburban and rural, where an undercurrent of whitewashed innocence and destructive value systems often hold the hierarchy together. These ten songs are full of characters from Amy's past and present, including the disenfranchised kids from her high school days, loves lost to addiction and abuse, and the teenagers that now inhabit her southern rural neighborhood. She challenges many institutions including the Christian Right, but does not shrink from taking to task the alternative institutions of rebellion. Her almost edible, growling voice and innate storytelling renders an album that is pastoral but filled with firecrackers; life giving, but never resting. Ray, one half of the Indigo Girls, will release this album, like her last, on her independent label, Daemon Records.
Prom roams over the vast territory of love and gender as contained in the physicality of nature. The subject matter spans a delicate landscape (suicide, racism, gender identification, political idealism, homophobia) but because she sees this awkward journey as both a struggle and a celebration, Ray comes across as curious and unafraid. From the Clash-meets-Phil Spector anthem “Driver Education” to the speedy and catchy social commentary “Blender,” Ray again occupies the space between rock, old-school punk, and folk, and claims this ground as her own.
Much of the exploration in Prom is done in the context of high school life. “In high school I fell in love with a woman for the first time, played my first gigs, learned about rebellion, experienced the idea of community, and felt the innocence of genderless childhood fading away into the reality of puberty,” says Ray. This is a time worth revisiting says Ray because we all see life through a special lens as we first are discovering ourselves. “High school was a time when I really had a grip on the idea of rebellion and what it meant to believe in something enough to fight for it. When I see kids now, I still see this happening with them and it is still infused with the same passion, confusion, and hormonal angst that I felt.” Even the love songs on Prom have a sense of fragile self-righteousness, and a certain youthful tenderness as if Ray is discovering love for the first time.
Lending to the credibility of her argument that girls rock, too, is the presence of what Ray calls “punk royalty” on Prom. Former Team Dresch bassist and guitarist Jody Bleyle and Donna Dresch sat in on several sessions, and added some riot-grrl-style sturm und drang to the proceedings (the other half of Team Dresch, The Butchies, figured prominently on Stag). Former Beastie Boys and Luscious Jackson drummer Kate Schellenbach brought her virtuosic sensibilities to many tracks, as well. Ray says, “These players have influenced my direction in life, as well as my music. Having a rhythm section like Kate and Jody is the ultimate collaborative experience for me.”
But Prom is not just about individual transformation and the search for self; it deals with maturation (and the frustrating lack thereof) in culture and society at large. It is a slow dance in the white rural South, that carries with it conflicts similar to those of white suburbia in the 70's. She weaves her own experience as a teenager with what she sees as the new challenges for a younger generation. She also levels a critical eye at the punk movement itself, of which she is a lifelong admirer and convert. Punk is the ultimate folk music, breaking down barriers and refusing to blithely follow rules set down by an unaccountable “other.” Yet punk’s stars are overwhelmingly white and male. Ray says she feels as though she inhabits the male part of her psyche when she plays rock or punk, but is unsure whether that's because of where the music is coming from in her, or what is expected by a society that expects rebellion from boys and propriety from girls.
On the other half of Prom Ray is joined by Birmingham, Alabama band Nineteen Forty-Five (also on Daemon Records), whom she calls “one of the best garage bands around.” Drummer Will Lochamy, bassist Katharine McElroy, and guitarist Hunter Manasco are part of a scene that is infused with the values of DIY music. They and their southern punk compatriots have been known to make “one night records” in their basements and are always ready to rumble. It was in one of these basements that Ray laid down some of the first tracks of Prom. “Some of the guys would be down there recording with me, and then we needed handclaps or crowd sounds behind us, so we'd shout upstairs to their friends or whoever was up there watching TV.” The rag-tag orchestra was dubbed “The Pep Rally Kids,” and is featured on the first track, “Put it Out for Good.”
Ray's solo punk debut, Stag was released to critical acclaim. And like her first record, she sees Prom as anything but a solo experience. Ray joined her newfound band mates on their home turfs, working in Birmingham, Atlanta, and L.A. throughout the year, in between Indigo Girls' tours. The record ended up in Athens, Ga., where it was mixed by David Barbe. Letting her musical comrades determine the journey was an integral part of her process, and this, says Ray is also the message of Prom - a sort of southern West Side Story about coming of age, finding love, and fighting for your humanity in the company of others. “Who was the producer on this? Everyone was. It was a real community effort.”
Indigo Girls fans will find an edgier, angrier, and yet more hopeful, compassionate and playful Ray on this record than ever before. It is something short of a proclamation and more of an exploration; Ray asks the questions and leaves the answer to the listener and for herself. As they find their own meaning in Prom, listeners will undoubtedly find some of their past, present, and future selves between the lines.