Patti Scialfa will always find herself in the unenviable position of begging the question, "Would anyone care if she wasn’t married to Springsteen?" Certainly, her marriage has proven to be a fine career move and she has an unfair shot at getting her music out compared to singers who aren’t married to the Boss. To be fair though, it isn’t her fault that she gets a better deal than everyone else, so let’s pretend she didn’t marry into a record deal and take a look at the album on it’s own merits.
Play It as It Lays is a light bluesy rock album with touches of country, folk, soul and even gospel, but the whole thing is really just a vehicle for her voice with it’s nice movement, mild rasp and country twang. The band is low-key and understated, entirely competent to convey the songs, yet infusing them with nothing they don’t already have. The songs are adequate despite feeble hooks and contrived subjects. Still, her voice is worth hearing and keeps the ship above water so to speak.
In a lot of ways, Scialfa sounds like Bonnie Raitt, except Scialfa’s substitutes a better voice for Raitt’s sense of soul. Perhaps a better comparison would be to the light-weight work of Sheryl Crow, where the songs aren’t entirely bad, just hollow. Part of Scialfa’s problem may stem from spending the bulk of her career as a backup singer. It’s usually someone else’s music that she’s singing and she has to sing it in such a way as not to overshadow the star of the show. Here she is making only her third solo effort since 1993 and it seems she can’t quite find herself. She sings well, but most often she fails to really dig her heels in and put the little extra into her voice that is the difference between alright and amazing. The song titles alone betray the songs as contrived and forced: "Looking for Elvis," Town Called Heartbreak," "Rainy Day Man." She hits a lot of rock lyric cliches before even delving into the lyrics. For the most part, the album feels like she churned it out as a job rather than an expression of herself.
To her credit, the album does finish with three strong tracks where she digs a little deeper and writes a little stronger. "Run Run" doesn’t ask her to go too deep and the result is much more comfortable. The title track even finds her tapping subtly (and very slightly) into Dylan. She closes the album with the breathy vocals of "Black Ladder," the album’s only songwriting chance. It’s really the saving grace, because it leaves Play It as It Lays with an open-ended expansiveness that defies the faults that precede it.