Knowing that Amy Speace hails from New Jersey, the album title, There Used to Be Horses Here, especially resonates. The state is more associated with sprawling shopping malls and office complexes, the traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, and the industrial specter of massive power plants, tank farms, and shipping terminals as one approaches New York City than for its nickname “The Garden State” or the picturesque horse farms that dot much of its western counties. The title is a powerful metaphor for the downside of so-called progress as well as a self-reflective notion of not only her past, but ours too.
Two events are at the core of her songwriting inspiration for this effort, the twelve-month span between her son’s first birthday and the loss of her father. They conjured up her own childhood memories, straddling memories of being raised by a parent while processing how to become one. Hers are detailed songs, surely with some sad overtones, but as we often find with literate songwriters, there is deep beauty in the melancholy too. We learn that the album title is more than metaphorical. The road to her dad’s house indeed used to run by a horse farm, since sold and replaced with condos. It’s as if a bunch of losses all added together – the horses, the farm, her father, her former home.
Singing in a breathy, at times tear-choked soprano, Speace’s voice soars and floats gently above mostly symphonic arrangements which ironically form a spare underpinning inviting the listener into Speace’s intimate and emotional space. As a fan and friend of the Nashville band The Orphan Brigade, she asked its three members—Neilson Hubbard, Ben Glover, and Joshua Britt—to collaborate as songwriters and co-producers, knowing their bent for texture and color. Speace observes that every vocal performance on the album is the first or second take, and that the musicians in the room are reacting in the moment – in the manner of jazz musicians although the music, as mentioned is, if anything, closer to classical. Although not as familiar with Britt, this writer attests to a strong track record of quality projects from Hubbard and Glover.
Every song on this album is a well-crafted gem, not just those she mentioned. There are blues in “River Rise,” perhaps her best vocal performance of all in the electrifying “Shotgun Hearts,” a released single and song about NYC when she was first starting out as an actress and singer. There’s the refreshing gospel uplift of “Hallelujah Train,” written with her collaborators, The Orphan Brigade. The funeral train the song speaks of is not one of sadness but one of great joy and celebration. These two songs provide a counterpoint to the melancholic mood of much of the other material but whether expressing mournful or joyous thoughts, Speace comes across as heartfelt and in control of every word, musical note, and mood. She has made by far her best album yet.