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First Listen: Becky Warren, 'Undesirable'

One of art's greatest qualities is its ability to give voice to the voiceless. When rendered in song, little-heard stories can find broad audiences, bridging gaps and building connection between disparate communities and lines of thought. The phrase "now more than ever" is wildly overused these days, but songs of this nature have taken on a heightened significance as divides across class, race, gender and party lines have grown wider and deeper since the 2016 presidential election.

On Becky Warren's sophomore album, the Nashville-based songwriter uses her platform to share the untold stories of the city's homeless and formerly homeless population. Warren found inspiration in Nashville's street paper The Contributor, striking up conversations with street corner vendors about their lives, work, families and struggle to find housing. Many of these stories directly inspired the narratives found in the songs on Undesirable.

Warren's previous release War Surplus traced the life of an Iraq war veteran and his girlfriend, a relationship that drew from her own life experiences. That album, her debut, gave nuanced voice to a demographic about which so many often speak in empty platitudes and masculine stereotypes. It gave shape to the myriad difficulties, like PTSD and depression, faced by our veterans at home, and finds a like-minded companion in Mary Gauthier's 2018 album Rifles and Rosary Beads. Undesirable is similarly complex, dispelling stereotypes about homelessness and its causes by revealing the humanity within the roadside paper vendors too many dismiss on their daily commutes.

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Most of the tracks here don't read as songs about homelessness, at least not on cursory listen. They chart heartbreak, new love, tough odds and quiet triumph in relatable ways, with a telling detail here or there that hints at each protagonist's broader life situation. On "Highway Lights," which dabbles in a modern, Jason Isbell-esque Southern rock, the narrator imagines a better life before revealing, "Now I'm old, older than I ever thought I'd be, sleeping 'neath the auto parts store marquee." Standout track "Carmen" is a love story told through dreams of "making ends meet" and finding a "little blue house."

While the topics on Undesirable are often tough, much of the music itself is hopeful, even joyful. "You're Always Drunk" is a spirited, humorous kiss-off to a drunk lover built on chunky, fuzzy guitar riffs, gauzy pedal steel and a punchy bass line. Lost-youth anthem "Nobody Wants to Rock N Roll No More" could be a Lucero song, with bluesy guitar licks filtered through a decidedly punk rock attitude. Collaborators include producer Dan Knobler and the Indigo Girls' Amy Ray, who guests on opening track "We're All We Got."

The album closes with "The Drake Motel," a driving rocker that recalls Lucinda Williams and tells of a lonely soul recounting loss love from a stark, cheap hotel room. It ends on a hopeful note, though, the narrator declaring, "I've got nothing left these days though I'm still out here on my feet / But oh, I'm moving slowly." In Warren's "undesirable" world, moving, even slowly, is a revelation, one we could all do well to celebrate in our own lives.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
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