The songs on Lighthouse are guided by two themes - loss and hope. Both have been a part of music since the beginning, but Susan Cowsill (formerly of the family band the Cowsills) taps into some pretty weighty experiences for inspiration. Not only was she displaced by Hurricane Katrina, she lost her brother Barry in the aftermath of the disaster, when his drowned body was found four months later. Five songs into the album, she pays tribute to him by covering one of his songs. While the preceding tracks have been relatively strong, with twinges of country, folk and electric sparks, "River of Love" bursts out of the gate with a classic minor-to-major tension-and-release set-up of classic pop. Cowsill's voice, as it does throughout the album, blends gravel and sweet emotion; and it doesn't hurt that her ex-bandmate siblings Bob, Paul and John help out on the chorus, along with Vicki Peterson of the Bangles, who also now has "Cowsill" at the end of her name (and who previously played with Susan in the Continental Drifters).
But what really rips at the heart strings is the subtext behind "River of Love." Though clearly written as a song about hoping to be reunited with a lost love (Susan doesn't change the gender), the lyrics are really about Barry in this context. In a strange but effective twist, Susan is saluting her brother with his own words. If it seems like I'm reading too much into this, the final seconds of the song seal the deal: One brother says, "I'll be waiting for you Barry," while another references the death of another brother with "Billy's dead, miss him, miss him," which also ensures things do get too maudlin.
The cliché "worth the price of admission" was invented for songs like this, but after hearing it, the rest of the album comes across in a different, stronger light. Early tracks like "Avenue of the Indians," with guest vocals this time by Jackson Browne, seem to have a little more edge. "Could This Be Home," which immediately follows "River of Love," brings the hope into the picture. The determination in Cowsill's voice convinces you that there is no other alternative way of thinking. Even when her lyrics border on ordinary (the title of "That's the Way it Goes" sounds a little anticlimactic as the song's payoff line), her delivery or musical arrangement makes up for it. The occasional string sections sound more intense and aggressive rather than sweet. A stripped down acoustic guitar and bass version of Jimmy Webb's "Galveston" might sound like an odd choice, but in her hands, it feels natural. After an open letter to New Orleans in "ONOLA," "Crescent City Sneaux" provides a prayer for that city's future, complete with name dropping and a coda that shifts to a Second Line beat and includes "Who Dat" calls and responses from the band. It should be hokey, coming from a not-so-funky singer-songwriter, but Cowsill and her band have the power to their conviction and they pull it off.
Standout Tracks: "River of Love," "Real Life." MIKE SHANLEY