Dark chanteuse Karla Moheno‘s genius is that as much as her noir narratives are detailed down to the nth degree, it’s next to impossible to figure out who gets killed in them. The creepy mini-movies on her album Gone to Town – streaming at her Soundcloud page – shift from killer floods to seedy border towns, through drug dreams, rubbing up against madness and sleazy characters of all kinds who must be done away with or at least run away from. This isn’t just the most Lynchian record of the year, it’s the most Lynchian record of the decade.
It doesn’t hurt that Moheno is also a brilliant tunesmith and an equally distinctive singer. She has the torchy noir blues thing down cold, but the blues is just a skeleton for her. She starts with a classic sound and builds from there with the reverb turned up all the way, on everything from the drums to the piano to the guitars. The songs also reveal that she’s just as much at home in classic soul music and even rockabilly. What might be most impressive about this album is that although there’s a constantly shifting cast of characters in the guitar chair, the sound remains the same all the way through: the faces may change but Moheno’s bleak vision doesn’t.
Moheno modulates her cool, uncluttered, mentholated vocals with just the hint of a smile that only distracts from her nonchalantly dangerous persona: Bliss Blood or Julie Christie in a particularly apprehensive moment come to mind. And as much as there’s plenty of mayhem implied throughout the album, Moheno plays the kind of femme fatale who strolls more or less unscathed out of the mist of 4 AM gunsmoke as the credits roll, ready for the sequel.
Lead guitarist Dylan Charles channels Marc Ribot noir skronk on the opening track, Time Well Spent, over Jenifer Jackson drummer Greg Wieczorek’s slow, slinky pulse as Moheno launches into her cruel tale of deceit and revenge:
Your stale sun shines
Give the old college try
My choice was clear
Either leave or die
So why not make an arrangement
And dare that county line?
The houglasss leaks on the pavement while you pine
As the story continues, we discover that there’s been a betrayal, maybe more than one, and an escape in the works – where it goes from there makes it the best song of 2014 so far by a country mile.
Silver Bucket evokes the Gun Club doing a swaying Smokestack Lightning groove circa, say, 1985, guitarist Sam Feldman’s echoey, incisive clang and occasional jaggedly tremolo-picked line underscoring Moheno’s allusively menacing story of toying with potentially deadly floodwaters. Subtext, anyone? Once again, Wieczorek’s understated drumming is spot-on, keeping the mystery drive pulsing but not lumbering.
Blacked Out & Blue is a lushly crescendoing oldschool organ soul ballad with Scott Hollingsworth doing double duty on the keys and bass along with Devon Goldberg adding deliciously watery, George Harrison-esque lead guitar. Moheno’s narrator may be a little woozy and delirious, but she hasn’t lost a step:
Cabin and fever, with one sleeping wound
I’ll draw up the plan, sir, just hand me a tool
You’re not such an old dog
This trick ain’t that hard
Throw mama a bone now
Why don’t you play in her yard
Fueled by Guyora Kats’ incisive chordal, bluesy attack on a slightly out-of-tune piano, The Return is a kiss-off song with a darkly vaudevillian edge:
And all of the girls,
They line up to meet the devil in your eyes
Every drop you can get to
Is a taste of what you will only love to despise
Have fun enjoy the ride
You love to barely get by
Just another excuse to paint your red door black
And now it’s all gone wrong
We never could get along
And so I’m sending it back
Brand New Eyes is another slow soul ballad, played solo on electric guitar with a menace that evokes Liz Tormes at her most murderously inclined. As Mexico moves from a slow acoustic ballad to a fiery desert rock anthem fueled by Jesse Blum’s accordion and trumpet, Moheno pans around a tourist town with a devious, Marissa Nadler-esque whimsy:
But hey Mr. Elvis
I’m still waiting for you
I won’t let those vatos get to you
I’ll keep that promise that fell through
And Grandma never hung up
Her good old drinking cup
She knows a couple nickels
Buy out any pickle
So line em up and knock em back
Make sure you’re losing track
I don’t want to remember this
I don’t need anything to miss
Fool of a Girl, with Feldman again on guitar, quickly moves from a brisk rockabilly-tinged shuffle toward Tex-Mex as Moheno blithely narrates her girl-on-the-lam tale:
Oh I was left for dead in Chicago by a cold cold white man
And I drowned myself in gin and spent a fortune to wash away his quicksand
But I didn’t mind it, I didn’t even put up a fight
And call me crazy, but sometimes two wrongs make a right
The final track. Girl Next Door reverts to the chilly, bluesy minor-key swing of the opening number. It’s the torchiest of the songs here, lowlit by Goldberg’s shivery red-neon guitar lines. Moheno plays the Manderley bar at the McKittrick Hotel, 532 W 27th St. (10th/11th Aves. – it’s the indoor bar, not the one on the roof) on Feb 3 at 10:30 PM. The show is free, but this swanky place fills up fast, so getting there early would be a good idea.