“Putting on Airs” is one of those expressions you only hear in the South; a dismissive term for someone who has risen above her station, who has achieved wealth or status and thinks they're better than their upbringing. At least that's what a Southerner who uses that term would tell you. More often, unfortunately, it is used to refer to someone who has exited the echo chamber, who doesn't toe the line of traditional religious, social, or sexual beliefs. That's the best interpretation of Putting on Airs used in the context of the new album by Erin Rae, out on Single Lock Records June 8.
Certainly, on first listen, Rae sounds nothing like someone who is “putting on airs.” Rae's gentle voice often draws comparisons to the likes of Karen Carpenter and Roy Orbison, neither one exactly known for their swagger. It's an album completely devoid of braggadocio. Just the opposite, in fact. Backed by lulling Mellotron and gently strummed acoustic guitars, Rae shows a talent for understatement, presenting hard topics so subtly it's easy to miss the message the first go around because you're lost in the atmosphere.
But that message is the core of Putting on Airs, and the most likely reason that Southern dismissal might be applied to Erin Rae. The album's best track, “Bad Mind,” finds Rae groping with her long process of coming out in a community where it isn't uncommon to find “Marriage = 1 Man + 1 Woman” bumper stickers on the car ahead of you. Rae could be forgiven for raging against tradition here, for writing a scathing takedown of the hypocrisy of divorced and cheating people calling her immoral. But her approach is more devastating. Detailing her attempts to hide her feelings, her initial rejections of them and those who she felt attraction to, and her eventual acceptance that embracing her own happiness would inevitably make her an outcast to many in her home community. When she sings “I don't want to have a bad mind,” it's hard not to feel for someone who is struggling with the notion that, by being herself, she is somehow broken mentally.
Fortunately, Erin Rae found the perfect collaborators for her message. Putting on Airs is her first album for Single Lock Records, the Alabama-based label founded by Americana singer John Paul White. It's a label that has found great success in signing artists who carefully balance honoring the musical traditions of the South while challenging its social traditions. Rae recorded Putting on Airs at the Refuge Foundation, Cory Chisel's remote Wisconsin-based retreat, a former monastery. She brought along producers Jerry Bernhardt and Dan Knobler, who have brought the best out of a number of genre-bending artists.
But, in the end, Putting on Airs is all Erin Rae. The experiences within are hers alone, she's the only credited songwriter on the album. In an Americana scene that thrives on introspection and soul-baring, Erin Rae has not only bared her soul but ripped herself wide open to expose everything there is to see. Maybe that could be called “putting on airs” in some circles. Has Erin Rae “risen above her station” with Putting on Airs? That's subjective. But she's certainly risen above the fray to become a voice that demands attention in a crowded genre.