Brooklyn band Karen & the Sorrows’ new ep Ocean-Born Mary isn’t your average country album. It’s a four-song suite based on a ghost story first introduced to the group by pedal steel player Elana Redfield. Mary seems to have been born onboard a pirate ship. As the story goes, her appearance so touched the ship’s captain that he backed off a sinister plan to slaughter the entire crew. And was so taken by this baby that eighteen years later, he tracked her down in rural New Hampshire and married her! But karma got the best of him. Turns out she liked him a little too much and came up with a plan to put an end to his lengthy absences at sea: she killed him by sealing him behind a wall, a la A Cask of Amontillado! Reputedly the house still stands and is haunted by the ghost of both the captain and his wife.
Frontwoman/guitarist Karen Pittelman’s high voice reminds a bit of Amy Allison and Dolly Parton in places – she’s got a coy, fetching edge at the top of her register and she uses effectively when she needs to drive a phrase home. The rhythm section of Tami Johnson and bassist AJ Lewis keeps it simple and oldschool, as does Redfield, whose judicious, tersely incisive playing is a good match for these allusive, attractive but distantly menacing songs. The first one is titled Persephone, and starts with a bass drone until it picks up with a backbeat and the pedal steel; Redfield’s jagged electric guitar gives away her punk rock background. “Calling, calling, calling from the underground,” is the refrain: this is a restless ghost. That one segues into Caged Bird, a swaying soul ballad in 6/8 time with some surprisingly biting guitar: “If you don’t come back to me why should I ever set you free,” the ghost asks. The best, and most ominous track here is A Plague on Your Houses, a brisk but brooding minor-key shuffle. The album ends with All the Oceans, which starts out slowly and then works its way up to a singalong chorus that’s just a little too blithe to be for real: this is a vengeful ghost! For those who might say that this isn’t oldschool, hard country, let’s not forget that like every other style of music, country keeps evolving, and Karen & the Sorrows are taking it to a place it’s never been before, a good and creepy one. Karen & the Sorrows play the album release show at Rock Shop in Gowanus tonight, the 28th at around 9.