An Understatedly Devastating Masterpiece and a Bowery Electric Album Release Show from Jessie Kilguss
What’s the likelihood that two of the best albums of 2014 would be released within an hour of each other on the same night at the same venue? Unlikely as that might seem, it’s happening this Nov 11 at Bowery Electric when dark Americana songwriter Jessie Kilguss kicks off the night at 8 PM with the album release show for her latest one, Devastate Me (streaming at Spotify). And her crowd has the good luck to be able to stick around and see Ward White play the release show for his similarly tuneful, menacingly literate new album Ward White Is the Matador about an hour later. If that’s not enough ominously lyrical rock for you, Matt Keating is playing at 10. It’s hard to think of a better triplebill in this city this year – and it’s only ten bucks.
Kilguss has made other good albums, but this is her quantum leap. The title is apt, but in a quietly devastating way. Kilguss’ voice has a matter-of-factness that gives her wounded narratives an intensity that’s all the more shattering for its nonchalance, through an understatedly riveting mix of crescendoing, jangly, purist Americana rock and Nashville gothic tunesmithing.
The title track sets the stage, guitarist Jason Loughlin, bassist John Kengla and drummer Rob Heath keeping a terse, even skeletal pulse as Kilguss builds her narrative to a sudden, creepy noir chord change and then the soaring chorus where the layers of guitars begin to build. The band adds all kinds of artful touches, from how Kilguss sails all the way to the top of her range as the chorus kicks in, to where the glockenspiel takes it out.
The album’s best song – and one of the best songs of the entire year – is Red Moon. It could be a Civil War tale, or a present-day account of freedom fighters on the run from the gestapo, fueled by Loughlin’s searing slide work. And it’s all the more powerful for Kilguss’ portrayal of the political as personal:
If you want a happy ending
It depends on where you stop your story
Me, I started at the top
I’ve been working my way down
Such a long way down
I’m Your Prey is the biggest rock anthem here, again following a steadily upward trajectory as Kilguss gives voice to a girl who couldn’t resist temptation even while she was staring trouble straight in the eye. The muted sadness and longing in her voice on the wistful Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight – referencing the Alexandra Fuller memoir- will rip your face off, crepuscular organ mingling with the web of guitars underneath. And You Didn’t Do Right By Me takes an old country waltz theme and makes purist janglerock out of it, ending with an achingly vivid blend of wordless vocals and slide guitar.
A Safe Distance From You keeps the noir atmosphere going, from its opening bass/drums pulse to its big, anthemic chorus and choir of ominously reverberating slide guitars – again, Loughlin keeps the flames flickering with an intensity to match Kilguss’ voice. Likewise, Train Song works lingering, nocturnal, Pink Floyd resonance all the way to a big psychedelic outro. “It’s a beautiful day to lose control, leave this life for a little while,” Kilguss muses, leaving the listener to figure out what she means by that. The final track, City Map builds a moodily dreamy, resigned midsummer ambience, her narrator’s placemap defined by”people I’ve loved, victories and their declines.” All of this proves that it’s actually possible to transition from the theatre to music – as an actress, Kilguss has shared the stage with Marianne Faithfull, among others.