Among rock songwriters, few are as capable as Lorraine Leckie in writing across a vast array of different styles. New Yorkers know her best as the leader of a whipcrack-sharp psychedelic Americana rock band that she fondly calls Her Demons. Yet as straightforward as her work with that group is, her other projects can be much harder to pin down. Her latest album, The Raven Smiled – a collaboration with similarly eclectic Czech violin star Pavel Cingl, streaming at Bandcamp – is her most enigmatic, her most beguiling and arguably her best. She and Cingl are joined by those Demons – lead guitarist and recent Blues Hall of Fame inductee Hugh Pool, bassist Charles DeChants and drummer Paul Triff – at the album release show on September 29 at 8 PM at the Mercury. Cover is $10, and you get a free copy of the cd with paid admission.
The influences on this album, through a glass darkly, seem to be PJ Harvey and Nick Cave, although the music here bears more reflection than resemblance to either artist’s work. As you would expect from the instrumentation – Leckie’s Telecaster or piano paired with Cingl’s violin – the sound is a lot closer to the folk noir of Leckie’s spare 2010 album Martini Eyes. However, Cingl’s judicious production frequently adds misty atmospherics and more ornate textures, in the same vein as Leckie’s haunting 2013 album with Anthony Haden-Guest, Rudely Interrupted.
The opening track, The Man That Walks in the Rain sets the stage, cryptic and mysterious, along the same lines as Dylan’s Man in the Long Black Coat. Leckie has made no secret that she is a devotee of the black arts, so it should come as no surprise that Climb Ya Like a Mountain would be a homage to Aleister Crowley (who, as Leckie tells it, was an avid mountain climber – and a surprisngly buffoonish persona for someone enamored with the dark side).
Leckie explores that light/dark dichotomy from the opposite angle with Dangerous Friends, its triumphant continental party narrative set against a hazy backdrop channeled via one of the unorthodox guitar tunings that she employs so often here. By contrast, the baroque-tinged piano ballad Story of Your Life has a lustrous, minimalist sheen, a homage to Prague, a city whose history and beauty clearly resonate strongly with Leckie.
Awake is even more minimalistic, Cingl’s lullaby violin gently building the somnambulistic ambience. By contrast, That Ain’t Nice is a launching pad for Leckie’s dissociative, noisy guitar explorations in tandem with Cingl’s blizzard of glissandos. Witches Heart tersely mashes up early PJ Harvey, witchy mid-70s Marianne Faithfull Britfolk and 80s goth, enhanced by the eerie close harmonies of backup singer Lisa Zwier. “My little doll, you were born under a broken star, I am sorry,” Leckie intones with a cool inscrutability as the album’s most distantly ominous track, Medicine Man, gets underway. The title cut, an enigmatic piano vignette, closes the album on a decidedly unresolved note. As with the rest of the songs here, there’s charm, but also menace, the defining characteristic of this allusively intriguing collection.