Imagine ELO with a better singer – this is the great album that Jeff Lynne should have made after Out of the Blue but didn’t. Abby Travis is one of this era’s great rock bassists, highly sought after by international touring acts since her teens. Yet the sound here is driven not by her bass – which is so deeply in the pocket it’s almost invisible unless you’re listening closely – but her layers and layers of lush, intricately orchestrated piano, string synthesizer and what seems like a million other richly sustained keyboard textures. Travis also happens to be one of this era’s great purist pop stylists, an eclectic songwriter whose signature sound has been a lush, angst-driven grandeur that often takes on a creepy goth tinge. She’s at Rock Shop on April 7 at 9 on a great doublebill with another brilliant purist tunesmith, Ward White, and then at the Mercury on April 8.
Her new album is simply titled IV, which could be read as “four” or “intravenous” – it’s a typical Travis touch. This is her Beatlesque record, a characteristically diverse homage to early 70s glam and art-rock. Vocally, she trades the pillowy angst that’s been her trademark for a seemingly effortless but powerfully soaring approach, reaching Kate Bush or Bjork-like highs in places. As she does with the keyboards, she builds layers and layers of gorgeous, Beatlesque harmonies to match the heft of the arrangements. Fans of this era’s artsy songwriting pantheon – the aforementioned Mr.White, Serena Jost, Patti Rothberg, and the Universal Thump – will love this stuff.
Pulsing Strawberry Fields atmospherics give way to crunchy guitars on the ornate, Beatlesque opening track, Lulu, a triumphant anthem for somebody who’s “everybody’s go-and-get-em gal.” “Now it all becomes so clear, the writing on the wall has disappeared,” Travis beams – and then a cheery ba-ba-ba choir kicks in. The second track, Rosetta has a similarly upbeat, ELO powerpop feel, Chris Bruce’s glammy twin guitars (a tongue-in-cheek trope that appears frequently here) set against the grandeur of the keyboard arrangement. The sarcastic Mr. Here Right Now, who “cannot be counted on at all,” is the most overtly McCartneyesque song here, followed by the nebulously sultry 6/8 soul ballad Don’t Walk Away, its waves of tinkling, swooshing and rushing orchestral textures and Rachelle Garniez-esque vocals.
With its second-generation Mick Ronson guitars, One Hit Wonder wouldn’t be out of place on a recent Patti Rothberg record. I Don’t Know What It’s Like turns the Bee Gees’ hit upside down, reaching toward Vera Beren-style grand guignol but with just a little less punk rock assaultiveness – although the creepy, screaming chromatic guitars that take the chorus out are the single most intense moment here. Like a ballsier Blondie, Pretender is a deliciously brisk, roaring new wave song: “There’s no time left to cry, there’s no time left to cry, you gotta get away,” Travis insists.
With its crushingly depressed, defeated imagery, the most plaintive song here is Heads, They Turn, a strikingly restrained 6/8 piano ballad. There’s also Lightning Squared, a Farfisa-driven Phil Spector-style girl-group soul tune, and the closing track, Last Hurrah, with its torchy piano melody and theatrical torrents of lyrics. This isn’t trendy music by a long shot: the stylistic references here end at about 1981. But for the Romantics among us, anyone who revels in rich, resounding melodies and unselfconscious angst, it’s a rare treat. Best of all, it’s also available as a limited-edition vinyl picture disc!