Jessi Robertson has one of the most harrowing voices around. It’s one powerful instrument, which is why sometimes when she’s onstage – especially when she’s playing solo – she doesn’t bother to use a mic since she basically doesn’t need one. Yet she’s also one of the most captivatingly nuanced singers around, which is unusual for someone with such an unearthly, impassioned wail. Her new album, I Came From the War blends her signature folk noir with artfully sculpted, lingering, sometimes majestic art-rock over tempos which tend to be on the slow side. She’s playing the release show on Dec 5 at 9 PM at Union Hall in Park Slope on a killer doublebill with the similarly brooding, intense, enigmatic Richard Buckner. Cover is $15 and it’s a good bet this show will sell out, so get there early. The album’s not out yet but there are a couple of tracks up at Robertson’s webpage and also her Bandcamp page – and what’s best is that it will be available on vinyl in addition to the usual digital formats.
Robertson varies her delivery from song to song, often from one verse to another: a soaring, achingly wounded soul-inspired delivery, then raw gritty rock, or smoldering, torchy jazz phrasing. The subtext screams throughout these songs, sometimes literally: war and its aftermath as metaphor for the perils of romance. The opening track, You’re Gonna Burn sets the stage: deep inside, it’s a bitter, menacing blues, Omer Leibovitz’s resonant, sustained lead guitar lines fueling its big upward trajectory.
Paper Crowns follows the same kind of upward drive out of a minimalist intro, a hunter-captured-by-the-prey scenario with an absolutely spine-tingling, lurid crescendo from Robertson. Trouble, a hypnotic anthem and a big audience hit, is a particularly anguished take on the old dilemma of whether or not to give in to temptation: Robertson caps it off with a particularly messy image of of losing one’s virginity. Tin Man kicks off with a stately 6/8 sway, watery guitars contrasting with Alex Picca’s fuzzy bass, building an orate, goth-tinged 80s atmosphere: it’s a portrait of denial told from the point of view of the bad guy in a relationship.
Immolate revisits the fire metaphor, but in the voice of a combat survivor, gospel-fueled angst over 4AD atmospherics – the way Robertson lets a crack or two into her voice is viscerally intense. Picca’s catchy bassline and Layton Weedeman’s drums build a pounding, red-neon arena-rock ambience on Lipstick: “How can I get high when you always bring me down,” Robertson’s protagonist complains, hell-bent on another conquest of one kind or another.
The album really picks up toward the end, first with Microtone Tone, the most noir song here, a kiss-off anthem with hilariously mean lyrics. Likewise, Silly Old Thing is a more amped-up take on the kind of brooding Americana that Robertson first made a name for herself with in the past decade. The most haunting and intense song of all is Winter Coat, just Robertson’s low, anguished vocals and acoustic guitar, a chilling portrait of battles with inner demons – Lucinda Williams would be proud to have written something this vivid. The final cut, Cipher, is much the same, Robertson on piano this time, a chillingly apocalyptic digital-age parable. Like all the best art, this album gives you pause and makes you question where you are, whether in your own life or in what’s around you: the most intimately personal as political.