I've been to the beach maybe three times in my landlocked life. Each time, sand got into everything, and I got a bad sunburn.
Never on any beach did a girl look at me the way Dri is looking out from the cover of her debut solo album, Smoke Rings. Clad in a casually sexy red bikini, one shoulder awash in sunlight that makes a crown of her blond hair and turns her necklaces into blazing emblems, Dri is inscrutable.
Her plump lips, decked with an unimaginably cute upper-lip mole, appear on the verge of a smile, but she's hesitant. There's a hint of lostness in her dark eyes. Am I boring her? Is she stoned?
Falling in love with a record is not at all like falling in love with a person. Records cannot reject you. They will always be around — even after years of sitting in a box, unplayed, they're still there. Part of the beauty of Smoke Rings is that here is a beautiful woman who will always be around, young and dappled in sun, looking out with an expression into which anything can be read.
When I asked the woman in the photo, a 28-year-old Lawrence musician whose full name is Adrianne Verhoeven, if she was OK with guys checking her out via the cover, she responded, without a hint of defensiveness, "I think the music will speak for itself. When people open up the CD and put the album in, it'll all make sense."
And so the girl on the beach pulls her towel together at her neck.
But that's fine. Dri could have a face like a deflated basketball, and her debut solo album would still be one of the sweetest, most heartfelt and most musically inventive pop albums to come out of the area all year.
A radical departure from both the high-charging emo pop of the Anniversary, Verhoeven's former, name-making band, and her current Fourth of July and Art in Manila, Smoke Rings finds Dri singing over soulful, danceable arrangements that combine live playing and prerecorded tracks. Lawrence beatmasters Nezbeat and Josh Powers, plus Fourth of July and 1,000,000 Light Years members Steve "SayMyName" Swyers and Patrick Hangauer, make up the album's production team. Dri sang, wrote the lyrics and lent a few instruments.
The album opens on a sad note with the spidery "Two Are One," a sparse lament to loving one person while being with another, sung over somber, clicking electronic production by SayMyName. But it's track two, the dusty-groovin', Powers-produced "Don't Wait," that sets the tone of most of the album — a radiant, psychedelic stew of lovelorn neosoul.
Though Dri is the album's butterfly queen, her producers provide the nectar. Powers taps the old-school soul, Latin and hip-hop on "Don't Wait" and "What's Real." Also on the beat frequency, Nezbeat brings the party on the super-rich dance cuts "I Tried" and "Free Tonight."
SayMyName shows the most versatility, bending his ProTools rig from industrial world beat to doo-wop to stuttering two-step soul. In fact, it was Say's original production work that inspired the creation of Dri.
Earlier in the year, before the sonic character of Smoke Rings was devised, Swyers played some of his instrumental home recordings to Range Life Records owner Zach Hangauer. Hangauer instantly drew a line from those recordings to his friend Verhoeven, whom he saw moving in a more soulful direction. Tracks from Nezbeat and the others soon found their way to Dri's hands.
For Hangauer, the work represented the completion of a vision.
In an e-mail worth quoting at length, Hangauer writes: "It can't be much of a secret that all of us Indie Rock dudes go home from catching a show, where we stood around sucking a beer bottle, listening skeptically, checking out the girls, and, at home, in our lovelornness, put on some Cat Power, some Jolie Holland ... because we long to connect, to bask in and to be soothed by the singing/purring voice of a woman."
According to Hangauer, Dri had "the chops, the experience, the beauty, the confidence and the talent" to pull off such a recording.
Some day, Smoke Rings may end up in a box or spend a few years untouched on the shelf. But for the moment, like the start of something new, it shines like the ocean at sunrise.