With a voice like James Taylor and lyrics like something you might hear on the Prairie Home Companion, Burke Ingraffia offers his 10 song album, Waves, with humor and aged wisdom. It is songwriter’s songwriting, and opens on the title track—a meditation on the unexpected ebb and flow of life— with the lyrics, “Songs will come in the pitch of night / I scramble for a pen to write / Then it’s up to me to get it right / Like any other dream.” (He had me at “scramble for a pen to write.” Ha!)
Like the title, Waves, the album is full of that holy exchange between inspiration and determination, our dance with sometimes-fickle time, that leads us to become who we are, to write our songs and then sway to them. As he sings on the second track, “The rain it won’t stop / But I knew right from the start / I cannot change the weather / But I can have a change of heart.” (Acceptance is almost as big a theme on the album as determination.) It’s almost as if he’s saying, yes, there is a choice to change, but you can never change without first accepting, coming to terms, becoming intimately familiar with the difficulty that “won’t stop.”
Perhaps the strongest message-song on the album, “That’s The Way Mountains Are Made,” galvanizes this theme. “It takes a long, long, long time / A never-ending daily grind / You might not see it every day / But that’s the way mountains are made.” There are some songs and images that are more religious on the album, like “St. Andrew’s Day,” and one such example puts it into New Testament terms: “There’s a prayer in / all the things we create / Chosen were the bread and wine / not the wheat and the grapes.”
It is an album for the “becoming,” the struggling, and so I can relate and am moved by the sentiments. But I don’t think that it would be such a delight, without some of the humor on the album. In the song “Business As Usual,” about a seedy salesman, he sings, “I work on commission. It’s a missionary position. I stay on top of what I’ve got to say to make you spend.” On another song, “You Gotta Breathe,” about the struggles of middle age he sings, “Your identity has been stolen / Your prostate is swollen / Your dog just killed your neighbor’s cat / The cops pulled you over / After drinking vodka sodas / How’re you supposed to get out of that.”
The musical composition throughout is solid and sturdy, fresh and compelling. But in the same way that it’s peppered with humor, it’s peppered with other instruments, like the clarinet, the cello, the harmonica, the lead guitar, to keep you on your toes and interested. Burke traveled to New Orleans to record the album (“featuring some of New Orleans’ finest musicians” he writes in the liner notes) and it is just the touch it needs to keep from being bogged down in the singer-songwriter trope or tripe.
This album came at just the right time for me, as some of the repetition of life is wearing me down. Focusing more on the determination as opposed to the inspiration necessary to succeed. I’ll end the article with Burke’s tags on Bandcamp. “Americana.” “Folk.” “Funny.” “Hopeful.” “Peaceful.” “Witty.” “Alexandria.” Go DC music!