As the great thespian Patrick Swayze once said, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” The same is true of Sarah Borges.
On the basis of her critically-lauded early work, particularly Diamonds in the Dark (2007), some pundits decided they know exactly where the Boston-area rocker and her cohorts, the Broken Singles, belong in the musical spectrum. They were mistaken. Her new record, The Stars Are Out, is about to stun them with a more vibrant, far-reaching display of what Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles are all about. And yes, there will be dancing.
“We always want people to dance,” enthuses Borges. “That’s the best way to get a show going.” After months of touring in support of Diamonds, she knew the character of her third album needed to be more upbeat than its contemplative predecessors. “I was trying to think of songs that would fit really well into our live show.” The results include the slinky, ‘60s stroll of “Me and Your Ghost” (“That’s about going out and dancing, all the things you used to do with your loved one”); the flirtatious, guitar-driven kickoff, “Do It For Free”; and “It Comes To Me Naturally,” a hip-shaking tale of a girl-about-town, originally recorded by bar band supreme NRBQ.
Diamonds and Borges’ 2005 debut, Silver City, often found her work filed under the Americana banner. But the time had come for Borges to explore different terrain, both as a writer and performer. The Stars Are Out is a soundtrack for Saturday nights, not Sunday mornings. “When I say I explored country music as much as possible, that doesn’t mean I became perfect at it,” she quickly qualifies. Borges just felt ready to take a break, until she had something new to say in that realm. And rock has always been her first love. “This is a style of music I’ve always listened to, and been really excited about.”
The ten selections of The Stars Are Out—five new originals, and five covers—were winnowed down from a list of dozens of candidates. Possible songs were put forth not only by Borges, but also her band mates—guitarist Lyle Brewer, bassist Binky, and drummer Rob Dulaney—and producers Paul Q Kolderie (the Pixies, Lemonheads, Radiohead) and Adam Taylor. “Every day, we’d sit down at the table, drink coffee and listen to records,” she explains. “In the end, we had way too many songs, and had to pick the best of the best. We held ourselves up to high standards, so I think we got the cream of the crop.”
Among the other selections are tunes attributed to Smokey Robinson (a radically reworked “Being With You”), Stiff Records act Any Trouble (“Yesterday’s Love,” penned by Clive Gregson), and the Magnetic Fields’ “No One Will Ever Love You.” “That was the first thing we tracked, and it became the benchmark for the record,” admits Borges. “We decided every song had to sound as good as that one did.”
Another revealing choice is “Ride With Me,” a lesser-known cut from the catalog of Evan Dando. “Boston was in its heyday of indie rock when I arrived here,” says the singer. “Bands like Lemonheads and Throwing Muses, they were the first artists where I felt like I was the only person in the world who knew about them. I came upon country and punk later, because of the people I met through loving that other stuff.”
Among the new originals Borges wrote for The Stars Are Out, two in particular illuminate the diverse creative impulses that drive her. “Better At the End of the Day” had been simmering in her brain since the Diamonds days. It began life as an elongated, Neil Young-style drone, boasting completely different lyrics. Yet with input from Kolderie and the band, it was meticulously overhauled into an inspirational anthem.
“I was trying to write about how you hope that, no matter what you’re going through at a given time, when things are over, it will all be better. And that you’ll learn something from it.” She chuckles. “I guess that was true for writing that song, too.”
At the other end of the spectrum is the romantic closer, “Symphony.” Although it incorporates string parts, and draws inspiration from timeless masterpieces and Old World ambience, it was hatched in a last-minute burst of inspiration. “That was done in one sitting. I was still finishing it as we started work on the record,” Borges reveals. In lieu of a full orchestra, fiddle player Ian Kennedy was recruited to round out the arrangement.
With The Stars Are Out polished and ready to go, Borges and the Broken Singles are primed to share this exuberant material with audiences nationwide; a recent rave in The New York Times praised their ability to get crowds up and moving. (They dug her “sparkling black minidress,” too.) “When I first started playing, I never imagined I could be so free with my body and my banter on stage,” she admits.
“Our live shows are the best part of being in a band,” she concludes. “There’s lots of climbing on things, and we’re always looking for that unexpected opening, where you can give somebody else your guitar and go sing in the crowd, or get the whole audience up on stage. That’s a liberating feeling. And if you can get it right, people have such a good time.” Will there be dancing? Oh hell yes.
Some folks make music because they want to — others do it because they have no choice. Sarah Borges clearly falls into the latter category, the kind of person whose DNA would read like a musical chart if you mapped it out on paper.
Diamonds in the Dark, Borges’ second album — and first for Sugar Hill — spells that out in lush detail, with every plaintive vocal twist and every rollicking guitar turn offering up proof that the Massachusetts native knows her way around American music’s roots (and has her own roots planted firmly in some mighty fertile soil). That terrain, like the landscape she and her band, The Broken Singles have traversed over the past few years, is plenty varied — taking in scenes as diverse as the roadhouse melancholy of “Belle of the Bar” to the unashamedly guileless romanticism of “The Day We Met.”
“I’m usually more comfortable doing songs that are sad or a little pissed than totally happy ones, but I was in a better place writing [‘The Day We Met’] and that just flowed immediately,” she explains. “When I first started writing, I was a little more self-conscious of certain things, certain topics, certain sounds. But you need to put that behind you if you want to really come up with something you’re happy with.”
After gathering the originals that form the core of Diamonds in the Dark, Borges reached far and wide for a smattering of equally intriguing covers. Those run the gamut from the aching “False Eyelashes” (a lovely tune usually associated with Dolly Parton) to the girl-group-styled romp “Stop and Think It Over” (composed by garage guru Greg Cartwright, who’s best known as leader of the Memphis-based Reigning Sound).
The icing on the cake is Borges’ passionate reading of “Come Back to Me” — an early classic from Los Angeles punk pioneers X, who she willingly identifies as “probably my favorite band of all time. I was never really drawn to big guitars or big songs, but the first time I heard them, I thought ‘this is just so badass…’” Listeners are likely to experience similar thoughts when their synapses are tweaked by Mike Castellana’s stiletto-sharp guitar work — not to mention the hip-shaking rhythms conjured up when bassist Binky and drummer Robert Larry Dulaney hit their groove.
While Borges readily acknowledges devouring songs from recordings made decades before she was born — Wanda Jackson, Bob Wills and vintage Merle Haggard have all been in heavy rotation on her stereo — she has always offset those influences with the music of the here-and-now.
“At the time I moved to Boston, in the mid-‘90s, indie rock was king, with bands like Throwing Muses and Morphine,” recalls Borges, who grew up in the industrial town of Taunton, Mass. “I really loved the punk rock ethic, bands going onstage even though they couldn’t really play all that well. But even more than that, I liked the fact that I could go to see these bands on a Friday night and see them on the cover of Rolling Stone, but still see them in the coffee shop on Monday morning. You couldn’t do that with the Beatles.”
Borges, who’d done plenty of musical theater in her teens, was thus inspired to take the step of crafting her own songs, which she performed as a solo artist before forming the first of several bands — “mostly for the purposes of drinking beer and hanging out.” Gradually, she gravitated towards the musicians who’d form the core of the Broken Singles, a combo that’s been her collaborative family for the past four years.
“It’s obviously a band, with three other guys in it, but somebody has to drive the train,” is how she explains the dynamic within the group. “I’m lucky enough that I’ve met guys, none of whom has any interest in being a frontperson, but all of whom have really incredible talents at what they do.”
That manifested itself on the Broken Singles’ 2005 debut Silver City, which was released on the Houston-based Blue Corn label. That disc gave a hint as to the quartet’s unique ability to meld the high-lonesome vibe of classic country with the hardscrabble attitude of old-school alt-rock, although Borges insists “we were still feeling each other out in a lot of ways.”
While Silver City garnered more than its fair share of praise in the press, including year-end top ten mentions in Los Angeles’ City Beat and the Knoxville Daily Times, Borges’ most steadfast supporters were intent on insuring she not be consigned to the “critic’s darling” pigeonhole — after all, as Paste magazine trumpeted, “this stuff screams for a wider audience on par with at least Lucinda, if not Gretchen Wilson.”
Diamonds in the Dark — produced, like its predecessor, by studio whiz Paul Q. Kolderie (who’s helmed classics by Radiohead, the Pixies and Uncle Tupelo) — figures to do just that. With an impossibly infectious hook secreted in each and every song, the disc has the rare ability to ensnare those drawn to both unvarnished floors and lace curtains, sweetly-spun pedal steel lines and bare-knuckled drums. Borges says that she didn’t set out to create that balance, but that she’s not all that surprised how it turned out.
“No one owns one kind of record unless they’re ridiculously purist,” she says. “My references might be all across the board, but they’re all honest and people seem to respond to that — and honesty is what really matters most to me.”