The desolation and alienation is relentless throughout Milwaukee Americana singer Peggy James’ latest album Nothing in Between, streaming at Spotify. What’s most striking is how original it is: while there are elements of artsy late 70s pop, 80s goth, 60s and 70s country, James’ style is completely her own. Milwaukee rock has been vastly underrated over the years, and this album puts James in the vanguard of great artists from the Shivvers to the BoDeans. Her startlingly direct, plainspoken delivery and lyrics mingle with a meticulously orchestrated, blue velvet atmosphere that’s impossible to turn away from: Gary Tannin’s production is genius. It’s today’s installment for Halloween month.
Swirly organ along with Jim Eannelli’s splashes of jangly guitar fuel the record’s epic, opening Lynchian ballad, We Had to Meet. James’ down-to-earth, unadorned delivery is multitracked for maximum intensity in places here. New York noir Americana goddess Jessie Kilguss comes to mind.
The intensity rises higher over Eannelli’s clanging, catchy chromatic in X-Files, a sultry mashup of Vegas noir and 80s new wave: “ Board up your fences or get blown apart,” James warns.
An Hour With You is retro 70s orchestrated Nashville gothic: “Nobody’s girl, I finally met nobody’s boy,” James muses against a sad, sparkly piano-and-strings backdrop. She takes the ambience ten years forward into the 80s with the pulsing, gothic lushness of Lover. The next cut, the album’s title track would be a straightforward 70s country-pop ballad except for the piano, which falls to the haunting, minimalist gothic side.
Muscle Man may be a silly Blondie-style attempt at reggae, but you can still see the trouble coming a mile away. Then the band take a detour into Tex-Mex flavored C&W with Gotta Have a Love “There’s only one way down this road, as straight as hell,” James warns.
In One Ear and Out the Other is a funny country cautionary tale in an early Dolly Parton vein. “Somehow my presence alarms you… a ghost of a very close friend,” James Ghost laments stoically in Ghost, a classic Nashville ballad straight out of the Kitty Wells book.
Sound of Your Wheels is a classic Lynchian theme, a younger woman pining for the older guy whose private plane is her only source of excitement in a dead-end town. Fallen Snow has lushness and twinkle beyond its baseboard-heat cocoon, piano and guitar delivering carefree ripple despite James’ persistent unease. The album’s final cut is the reverbtoned, tremoloing Wish You Well, a desolate goodbye ballad and vehicle for James’ most brooding vocals here. Let’s hope we hear more from this hauntingly individualistic, unpretentious, deceptively deep purist American tunesmith.