Elisa Flynn‘s new album My Henry Lee – streaming at Bandcamp – picks up where she left off with her unselfconsciously haunting, historically-infused 19th Century Songs in 2011. Flynn has been one of New York’s most distinctive, poignantly powerful singers since the zeros, back when the founding member of Bunny Brains decided to study vocals with Shara Worden. If anything, this is Flynn’s most nuanced and dynamic album yet, maybe because it’s mainly just solo electric guitar and voice with the occasional echoey electric piano or guitar overdub. The music is both elegant and scruffy, and very catchy: Flynn likes to juxtapose enigmatic, simple variations on a spare guitar riff with more anthemic, sometimes majestic choruses. Flynn is also an irrepressible impresario: she’s playing one of her usual haunts, the Way Station tomorrow night, November 17 at 8 PM, leading “ an evening of songs of antagonism and rivalry” with Lys Guillorn, Maharajah Sweets, Dan Cullinan, Wifey, Sarah Bisman, Thee Shambels’ Neville Elder, John LaPolla, plus a reading by Kevin Kinsella (ex- John Brown’s Body).
The title track of Flynn’s new album sets the tone, a brooding, resonantly fingerpicked, carefully considered but also pretty radically reworked take of the classic murder ballad popularized by Nick Cave and PJ Harvey. Flynn follows that with the ominously picturesque My Blood, set to a hypnotically ringing, loopy guitar backdrop. Cheetah, the first of a couple of numbers celebrating animalian fearlessness, rises from a briskly strummy, fast 6/8 groove spiced with surrealistically echoey early 80s electric piano: it could be a demo from the Church circa 1983.
Likewise, Horse Race, with its weirdly echoey, lo-fi, bell-like guitar, except that this is Flynn at her sardonic, darkly amusing best: “There’s nothing rough about you, I’d just like to put that on you, I want you to be more like me…tell me what drugs you’re on,’ she poses to a complicated person who’s clearly vexing her. Keeper of Secrets is another number pairing unresolved minimalism against another wickedly catchy chorus, a possible elegy with hints of late Beatles as the music subtly builds from skeletal to lush. The final cut is a banjo tune that’s simultaneously stark and rustic and yet completely in the here and now: as ancient as this song sounds, it’s impossible to imagine it being recorded in, say, 1988. It’s an uneasy escape anthem that harks back to the Reconstruction-era milieu of much of Flynn’s previous album. There’s a lot going on here, lyrically especially – these songs grow on you. Watch this space for more full-length solo shows by Flynn, who’s just as funny a stage presence as she is an individualistic guitarist and rivetingly good singer.