Expanding on the boundaries of what an indie-folk band can be, Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards take their extensive string music background, add their knowledge of folk and roots music, and incorporate an edgy pop sensibility to create their latest album, BITTER BETTER. The album will be released on May 1 on Compass Records, with the band joining The Mountain Goats for their spring US Tour. Cortese premieres the song “Treat You Better” with American Songwriter, which writes: “Cortese portrays cynicism and bitterness in the lightest and most human way possible, making ‘Treat you Better’ a relatable song focused on reality but not the aggressive nature of the situation. To support the dynamic portrayal of conflicting ideologies about bitterness and love is the upbeat pitter-patter pop elements streamed throughout the track, aligned with a clear cut and bittersweet narrative.”
A stunning lesson in all the ways string instruments can be played – bowed, plucked, percussively – BITTER BETTER showcases Cortese and multi-instrumentalist producer Sam Kassirer (Lula Wiles, Lake Street Dive) striving to capture the most adventurous approach to each moment. The result is an album that incorporates dance-worthy foundational grooves, synth, and loops to push the boundaries of the genre. BITTER BETTER will be released on April 17 on Compass Records and the band has been invited to support The Mountain Goats on their extended US tour, which kicks off in late April.
“Everything is so heavy in the world right now,” Cortese says, who’s been living in Belgium the past two years. “When someone comes to our show, listens to this album, or hears one of the songs, I want it to feel like relief and release.”
So how does one begin to chip away at walls of self-preservation and shame that create social confinement? For Cortese and company, one word came to mind: dancing. “When you dance, you let it all go,” she says. With that in mind, Cortese set off on a personal creative journey like none before — no rules, no restrictions, just the desire to create music that makes you move.
Kassirer helped her sift through her cache of over 40 songs and encouraged her to form songs from her snippets, riffs, and ideas. For the first time, Cortese opened up the songwriting process to The Dance Cards collective. She exchanged ideas and songs with her bandmates remotely, and then enticed a few with the promise of Belgian delicacies to cross the ocean and flesh out arrangements. From recordings of the players beating on all sides of their instruments, Kassirer fashioned loops and created bass lines with members of the band. Lyrics were honed through group examination, with the goal of framing each story in the most impactful way possible to inspire empathy in the listener. The work was quick, but it was deep.
When it came time to record, the band and Kassirer joined forces with percussionist and engineer D. James Goodwin; together they completely dismantled the idea of how a string band “should” sound.
“Where the Fox Hides” is a response to how isolated many people are in our modern, digital world and the loneliness it engenders.
“Belgium, my new home, is #1 for suicide in Western Europe. They keep a lot of distance socially,” she says. “People meet up with friends in bars instead of their homes. It takes a long time to make real friendships. Trying to integrate gave me new perspective on what it feels like to be an outsider”.
“From the Ashes” was a reaction to the devastating California wildfires. Cortese, originally from San Francisco, was inspired by the resilience of friends who lost their homes, and drew from her childhood experiences to write this autobiographical song. “Corduroy” is about a “hipster who tries too hard,” and the haunting “Young Man” was written on one of the three antique harmoniums (also known as pump organs or field organs) in Cortese’s Belgian home. Reading stories of chaplains and their harmoniums in the world wars — stories which often had tragic endings — the song evokes European battlefields and a sense of wartime history and loss. “Daylight” is a goodbye to her Boston home and a note to her friends to stay positive following the 2016 presidential election.
“There was a lot to feel hopeless about, big political changes and taking to the streets to protest. Friends had been marching weekly since January 20th and I could see our energy and optimism waning. I wanted to remind us to take care of ourselves and reconnect with hope and joy as the longer days returned.”
While the album’s 11 tracks provide relief and release, they also encourage self-examination and personal discovery—the work that is necessary to sustain the energy needed to keep striving, to connect, and to continue to make our complicated world a better place. With BITTER BETTER, Laura Cortese & The Dance Cards throw out the rulebook, creating a beautifully vivid, musically unexpected canvas from their refreshingly unconventional perspective.
1. Treat You Better
2. Corduroy Jacket
3. From the Ashes
4. Where the Fox Hides
6. How Long
7. Younger Man
8. Talk to Me
10. When We Rocked