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Martha Berner Finds Strength in Pieces

By Scott Smith on Jan 25, 2007 5:36PM

Acoustic folk-rock artist Martha Berner has a certain power.

2007_01_berner.jpgHer live shows are revelatory. An artist in the Machine Records stable, she managed to deliver a solid performance with her full band at the label’s holiday party at Schubas last December, despite a bout of laryngitis that harshed her otherwise gifted voice, which moves easily from dreamy falsetto to a pleading alto. (We imagine the hot toddies she was sipping helped a bit.)

Berner’s next full-length is due this summer, but this week she released an EP called Ten Tiny Little Pieces. On her previous album, This Side of Yesterday, the arrangements were often too delicate (“Dear Franklin” being a notable exception). It’s a flaw not found in this EP; in the title track, all of Yesterday’s elements are still present (strings, harmonica, and rhythmic acoustic guitar supporting wistful romantic memories), but the final product conveys the kind of strength found in Berner’s live shows, even in a story about crippling sadness. It’s refreshing to hear a song about heartbreak that has a streak of defiance running through it.

The rest of the disc is a lighter affair, filled with the kind of warm details and remembered conversations that make Berner’s songs seem so familiar, even when she’s singing about places you never been or people you’ve never met. The familiar keyboards of May Or May Not’s Zaid Maxwell show up on the cover of the Velvet Underground’s "Sunday Morning" and "Wait For Me," a foot-stomping, rave-up that crackles with hope and optimism, thanks in part to Berner’s sunny coronet parts.

Now settled in Chicago, Berner plays a local release party for Pieces tomorrow before she heads out on a national tour, which will undoubtedly inform her next album. She performs at Lilly’s (2531 N. Lincoln), a bar we’ve always felt was an oasis of good music in a sea of backwards baseball caps and quarter drafts. With winter now arrived, here’s hoping they keep some bourbon and honey on hand, just in case. After all, a certain power requires a hot-burning fuel.

Martha Berner, Friday, Lilly's, 9 p.m., w/Hayward Williams and Cabin, $5.