Sometimes the best albums take the longest to get to know. Which isn’t any surprise: if you can figure out exactly what an album is all about the first time around, maybe it isn’t worth hearing again. Rachelle Garniez has been making good and frequently transcendent ones since the late 90s. Her new one Sad Dead Alive Happy, just out this past January, is the fifth by the virtuoso accordionist/pianist/chanteuse, who’s fluent on guitar and bass as well. Over the years, she’s covered more ground more expertly, unpredictably and entertainingly than pretty much any other songwriter alive: noir blues, lushly orchestrated piano anthems, oldtime country, oompah punk, salsa, tango, psychedelia, torch songs and ragtime, to name a few genres. Her lyrics work multiple levels of meaning for a style that sounds completely spontaneous but probably isn’t: songs as intelligent as hers are typically very carefully thought out. This new album is her most opaque and inscrutable: musically, it’s an unexpected turn deep into gospel and soul music.
As usual, keyboards are front and center here, along with Garniez’ nuanced, occasionally dramatic multi-octave vocals. She pulls out all the stops on the opening track, the album’s funniest, a surreal homage (in the rough sense of the word, anyway) to Jean-Claude Van Damme, who’s apparently been hawking antidepressants on tv. It could be sincere, or it could be the album’s cruellest, most sarcastic and punkest song. Garniez’ grand guignol operatics on the outro sound more like Queen than anything else: it’s so beautifully blissful it’s hard to believe. God’s Little Acre is overtly sarcastic and even more upbeat, an unrepentant anthem for hedonists who might not want to reconnect with old conquests via Facebook. Lunasa begins echoey and hypnotic and morphs into an Irish ballad: “Tonight is the last night of the summer of love, the last night of summer, my love,” Garniez sings sweetly, but as usual, there’s an undercurrent of menace that finally emerges after a charming tack piano interlude. Nothing is exactly as it seems here.
If you’ve always wondered how Matt Munisteri would play an arena-rock guitar solo, you’ll find out on Parallel Universe, which melds 80s stadium rock into a slow gospel ballad – and surprisingly, it works. Metaphorically, it’s about rediscovering an earlier self: how that might be achieved is open to interpretation. A couple of tracks here have a previous life as well. The jaunty, clever swing tune Just Because You Can first appeared on Catherine Russell’s This Heart of Mine in 2010; Garniez’ own version is more straight-ahead. And the refusenik soul anthem My House of Peace was first released as a vinyl single by Jack White (who also plays drums on the song) on his Third Man Records label in 2009.
The album’s final track, Land of the Living brings the gospel to a crescendo both lyrically and musically: it’s an Aimee Mann drug dirge that trades that artist’s harrowing edge for a streetwise optimism. “When you fly, do you like to get a running start?” whispers Garniez as the song slowly kicks in; by the end, it’s two women hanging out, smoking on a stoop somewhere in Manhattan, one gently nudging the other toward a more robust future. You could call this gospel for nonbelievers – paradoxical as that sounds, it’s the kind of theme Garniez thrives on. Check back at the end of the year and see if this gets the nod for best album of 2012: it just might. In the meantime, it’s streaming in its entirety at myspace.