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Tag: penelope houston

Luxotone Releases Robin O’Brien’s Darkest Shining Moment

The morbid imagery of the cd package  – a surreal vintage 60s psychedelic illustration by Velveeta Heartbreak – for Robin O’Brien‘s new album Dive Into the End of the World pretty much gives it away. A chillingly understated song cycle fixated on death and dissolution, it’s O’Brien’s first collection of all-new material in years and one of the most shattering albums in recent memory. Beautiful as O’Brien’s voice is, and as many of the songs are, it’s not for the faint of heart. With a nod to Dylan, O’Brien asks her “blue-eyed son” what he sees:

I saw bright coin in the business of cancer
She opened my palm, put a portal in my chest
But earth from her back shakes off the rider
Mother, she knows best

The personal as universal; ontogeny recapitulating philogeny – or vice versa. That’s a line from the album’s third track, a tense, brooding folk-rock song titled Ashes, and it’s typical of what this album has in store.

“Joy is a narrow place, but your face is always changing,” O’Brien reminds over a Ticket to Ride bounce on the hypnotic opening track: summer is something that you “take with you when you go.”  George Reisch’s uneasy, echoing layers of guitars echo the anxious swirl of 80s paisley underground bands like the Rain Parade. Guitarist Kevin Salem opens the next track, Sylph with a snarling, bluesy slide guitar riff, O’Brien’s vocals raging through a bullhorn effect:

This house that I call my home
Slide into the muddy water
By the river’s edge it crumbled
Over stones and broken bottles

Salem takes it out with a long, savage solo, like Richard Thompson at his most assaultive. “Drink the sugar from the leaf, you can taste the passage over,” O’Brien adds knowingly.

She’s been a cult artist for years, sought out for her full-throated, soul-infused, soaring multi-octave vocals. This is her third album on the insurgent Chicago label Luxotone. Her previous two explored everything from folk noir to blue-eyed soul and jazz-inflected, Joni Mitchell-esque stylings. The latter comes front and center on Frozen Still, O’Brien taking flight over Nikos Eliot Flaherty-Laub’s icily surreal avant garde piano, Reisch holding the song to the cold ground with a terse bass pulse. It contrasts with the shamanic dirge I Will Not Fight and its doomed “we cannot drink the water” mantra, Salem’s distantly menacing slide guitar over Marcus Giamatti’s coldly minimalistic bass.

With its jangly, watery chorus-box guitar, soaring chorus harmonies and 80s folk-pop feel, Catalina is arguably the most gorgeous song here. Dive into the Purple Water is essentially the title track, its layers of guitars and O’Brien’s catalog of doomed images building menace over a minimalistic delta blues beat.

O’Brien takes the catchy, swinging 60s folk-pop song Empty into desolate terrain, Reisch’s spaciously funereal guitar accents enhancing its wounded, exhausted feel. St. John blends lush early 90s dreampop with gothic folk, Reisch’s off-center guitar tones transforming it into a surreal lunar lullaby as O’Brien contemplates herself “all ondone amidst the lilies.” On Mountain, Reisch builds wailing, galloping Floydian desert rock behind O’Brien’s tense, accusatory vocals. We Catch Fire works a gloomy Velvets-folk vibe; the album winds up majestically and hauntingly with Under the Skin, a southwestern gothic bolero evocative of  Penelope Houston, fueled by Risch’s simmering, spacious reverb tones:

Night is made of sand
Ours are the children
Born to watch them die
All of our riches
In the cauldron fire

Jocelyne Lanois of Martha & the Muffins and Crash Vegas, Chris Harford and Anthony Presti also make cameos. It’s the high point of O’Brien’s career and a genuine classic that ranks with the darkest material that Nick Cave, PJ Harvey or Nina Nastasia ever recorded.

Elegantly Pensive, Purist Americana Songwriting from Susan James

Concept album about a breakup: what springs to mind? Cliche after cliche from some self-absorbed singer-songwriter? Cheesy, weepy lyrics and wimpy acoustic guitars? Something you’d most likely click off in a nanosecond? In that case, it might be dangerous to let you know that Susan James‘ new album Driving Toward the Sun is a concept album about a nasty breakup. Then again, an element of danger, emotional or otherwise, is a frequent presence in James’ music. If depth and intensity and a lush mix of both oldschool and alt-country and elegant chamber pop are your thing, there’s plenty of all that here. The whole album is streaming at James’ Bandcamp page.

The title pretty much says it all: it cuts any way you might imagine, and it gives you a clear indication of how smartly James writes and sings. Her imagery is plainspoken but potent, her clear, uncluttered, direct voice unselfconsciously affecting. James hails from Los Angeles, and there are a ton of musicians backing her. Notable among them are brilliant, ubiquitous pedal steel player Eric Heywood, purist drummer and Amy Allison collaborator Don Heffington and guitarist Neal Casal, whose terse, bitingly incisive leads cut through the lush bed of acoustic rhythm and soaring steel lines, usually over a steady, resolute backbeat. James’ songs evoke both the pensive Americana purism of Tift Merrritt as well as the clarity and edgy, confrontational directness of Penelope Houston. Tom Petty producer Ryan Ulyate deserves a shout-out as well for fleshing out these songs with a rich mix of textures without falling back on any easy 70s pop or 21st century corporate cliches: it sounds like the record he always wanted to make if left to his own devices.

The pensive title track has a Merritt-like determination in the face of adversity: the way Heywood’s floating steel contrasts with Jason Chesney’s anxious bass solo as it kicks off the final chorus is a characteristically smart, subtle touch. Wandering, a brisk, bluegrass-tinged shuffle is more optimistic: James’ protagonist has a “compass for a heart and a pickaxe mind” and isn’t about to let anybody get in the way.

Aqua Dulce Tears is sort of a schlock-free take on what Linda Ronstadt was doing in the 70s, Casal’s terse, echoey leads foreshadowing James’ chronicle of disappointment and dissolution. Just from the title, you know where U-Haul in the Driveway is going, but it’s bittersweet rather than maudlin, gorgeously flavored with Heywood’s low, moody swells, mandolin and a clave backbeat.

Despite all the pain, all the miscommunication, James is not ready to pack it in: “Any fool can see, I’ll be here come next anniversary,” she intones quietly on the next track: “I wanna scream and shout…quiet, the kids are in the room.” The slow, jangly ballad House of Love has both the tersely poetic sensibility and catchiness of Mary Lee Kortes‘ recent work, not to mention James’ nonchalantly chilling vocals. John McDuffie’s neat twelve-string guitar break toward the end sheds a little light that you just know is going to disappear, and it does.

The closest thing here to Penelepe Houston is Tule Fog, especially as the wickedly catchy, metaphorically-charged chorus kicks in: “When the the Tule fog comes rolling in, it’s a dangerous road my friend, when you can’t see around you…”  The album ends with Mission Bells, up with a spash of cymbals, twin acoustic guitars, a wash of pedal steel in the background. It’s both a requiem for lost hopes as well as a tentative stab in an opposite direction: the Eagles only wish they had material like this to use to connect with a current-day audience. This is the rare album that will resonate with people who are looking for substance and depth as well as listeners who will never hear this as anything more than something pleasant in the background.