Elisa Flynn’s 2009 album Songs About Birds and Ghosts was a stark, moody collection of literate rock songs. The production went for a scruffy, jangly acoustic-electric feel, but the tunes sometimes reached toward a towering majesty, particularly the opening cut, Timber, a genuine 21st century classic (watch the video, a wry Blair Witch parody, here). So the question that screamed out was what if Flynn decided to go all the way and give her songs an epic grandeur rather than simply hinting at it? That’s exactly what she’s done with her latest release, 19th Century Songs, and that’s why it might be the best rock album of the year.
Flynn is a one-woman orchestra, playing all the guitars and keys, backed by an alternately mighty and elegant rhythm section of Mark Ospovat (who also produced) on bass and Anders Griffen on drums. Sometimes she unleashes a swirling dreampop cyclotron, other times a savage roar, often both at once: some of this music is the bastard genius child of My Bloody Valentine and the Throwing Muses. Flynn’s vocals on Songs About Birds and Ghosts were gripping – here they are exquisite. She’s always been a good singer – she’s a student of Shara Worden, something that pretty much gives her instant cred – but at this point Flynn has reached the point where she may have surpassed her teacher. And that’s not to disrespect My Brightest Diamond’s frontwoman, a powerful and dynamic presence, but simply to say that Flynn can pack more wallop into a single, wounded bent note than most people can with an entire album.
The lyrics explore historical themes, allusively: they’re sung from an eyewitness point of view, often without directly referencing a particular incident or time period, which makes them all the more interesting. The opening track, Close Your Eyes, once again is the real stunner here, pairing off the drama and intensity of the verse against a gentler, watery chorus straight out of the Lush playbook from around 1989. Is this song about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair murders by serial killer H. H. Holmes? Maybe. 19th Century Breakup Song follows a more predictable trajectory, building up to the chorus, like the Walkabouts if they’d been from Brooklyn instead of Seattle. Flynn’s wary, nuanced voice contrasts with the raw power of the guitars: on an all-too-brief solo, she fires off a series of biting octaves while Ospovat slinks behind her in the shadows.
The third track, Eliza Donner, evokes Siouxsie & the Banshees, ominous guitar rising and falling above Griffen’s menacing, funereal drums. “Does He watch us like we’re figures in a snow globe?” the doomed woman asks, hope slowly turning to dread. “I can’t hear you talking but I hear the wind laughing at me.” The next song, Fram, seems to be a seafaring epic, a surreal torrent of sinister imagery, its narrator “cutting into ice for weeks and months” over a backdrop of intricate fingerpicking. Flynn goes back to Siouxsie-esque with Poor Little Lamb, the most exhilarating song here, carnivalesque organ fluttering behind the wall of guitars for extra menace. Midway through, when a completely evil dreampop bridge leaps out from behind the central riff, the effect is literally breathtaking. The album closes with the pensive, gothic folk tune William Tecumseh Sherman, a soldiers-eye view of the Civil War where “the blackest days have shown themselves” and southerners (or is it all the soldiers?) “lay down their lives for twisted dreams of older men.” The CD comes with a “lovely hand-crafted cover, 3 prints, and a 1″ pin,” for six bucks at Flynn’s bandcamp, where you can hear and also download the whole thing.