Oh Susanna – A Girl in Teen City (Stella)
For songwriters, the teenage years serve as raw material for decades worth of lyrics: the emotional volatility, the wonder of the new, the assertion of self, the possibilities that stand before you. It never gets old, no matter how old you may be.
Oh Susanna, a.k.a. Susie Ungerleider, is far from her teenage years in Vancouver; she lives in Toronto with a drummer husband and a son approaching teen years himself (he gets a co-writing credit on one song). On her first album of original material since surviving a bout of breast cancer, she revisits her younger self in vivid detail. As she describes in the liner notes, the protagonist is “trying to find out who she is by trying to be something she isn’t, falling in love, getting drunk, having her heart broken, sneaking into shows in burnt-out warehouses, watching the waves, tasting the salt in the air, walking home over bridges and railroad tracks in all that endless rain.”
Those liner notes might well be direct quotes from the lyrics themselves. A Girl in Teen City doesn’t couch its setting or intent in oblique poetry: Ungerleider writes wistfully and directly about the awe and adventure of the time. You may as well be sitting next to her as she goes through a box of teenage mementoes. The charm is in all the details: geographic and historic specifics, certainly, but also the feeling of sensing a kindred spirit in a dark movie theatre, of having a lover who questions gender roles, of getting busted for trying to get into a licensed show. On one of the best tracks here, she recalls watching a boyfriend attempt to front a band just because he looks the part; he’s a terrible singer, however, and as she watches him she realizes that she “can sing circles around him” and deserves to be on the stage instead.
Producer Jim Bryson keeps the arrangements spare and focused on the narrative; guitarist Gord Tough and drummer Cam Giroux (both formerly of Sarah Harmer’s Weeping Tile) are key players in the supporting cast. Full marks also go to designer Catherine Lepage, whose packaging—including pics of Ungerleider’s teenage Siouxie Sioux phase, and illustrations of Vancouver’s neon history—enhances the entire experience. (May 25, 2017)
Stream: “My Boyfriend,” “Lucky Star,” “My Old Vancouver”