(more from my Nashville Scene ballot comments)
Elizabeth Cook: Exodus of Venus: If she has indeed experienced triumph over tragedy, as some some reviewers suggest or announce, that’s great, but part of the artistic triumph or effect of the album itself is that I can’t really be sure, especially when looking for unmistakably triumphant or coming-into-the-light themes—well, there’s one, “Dharma Gate,” which sure sounds like a cosmic transition point, where you might die and go to drug heaven, and then whatever comes next, if anything, or come back for another chance—or just where the penny’s dropping, a moment of lucidity: “What are you doing? The chance, the choice is Now”–but that’s more
implied by the musical undercurrents than any upfront therapyspeak. It seems to come from and be personal experience, something ongoing, or a fresh memory, like the rest of the album.
She seems to be trying to make sense of chaotic scenes, all around and/or in her head, without reducing them in any way, incl. exploiting what’s obviously melodramatic enough already. A couple of tracks still seem too even-handed, monotonous, as strung-to-dried-out stringer E. Cook reports again from the battlefield, over burnt-dry, steady rolls, with periodic guitar solos providing equally dry, electronic heat lightning: effective jolts, but they work better when she doesn’t rely on them so much. Mostly, she lets the spare, somewhat metal-associated beats flex a bit more, even get to a kind of New Orleans hip hop rattle at times, and the guitars get to flex too, nothing musclebound.
Her voice eventually gets to flex some too, taking the band out for a run in “Straightjacket Love,” which alternates a high lonesome hillbilly (nasal) waltz, with meth bursts: “Look out look sugar, Mama needs her drug, better come and save her, with yore/Straightjacket Love.” Also, she chirps like Dolly Parton while taking her first tour of the methadone clinic, where Dr. Feelgood is all squeaky-clean and “socialistic,” no bad boy appeal atall, but oh well, showing up for regular no-drama doses “adds some structure to the week,” and she can sell what she doesn’t use up.
Prob be some argument, but to me, for now (especially with some of the guitars on relative mainstreamer Miranda Lambert’s new set not that far from the more consistently Nashville Outcats sounds of Lucinda Williams and the newly cookin’ Cook), this is a country album: the pitch and cadence of her voice, the turns of phrases, as written and sung, guide and shadow the grooves, bringing out the bluesy elements of crossroads sounds, without trying to pretend they’re pre-digital; the subject matter, layers of atmospheric consistency—the fixations of an addict, recovering enough for perspective on same—though getting the fix, “getting straight,” as they used to say, can provide enough detachment for moments of insight even inside the thing, as “Dharma Gate” and others suggest—all merge with certain classic themes of country, even if she’s not meditating on a shot glass all of the time.
From a later online discussion:
Going for what I called her “sonic grid”—that dark, spare, hard-edged but flexible framework for the throughline of her narrative themes—has some of the same appeal as Stapleton‘s and Eric Church‘s recent albums, something of a Jamey Johnson atmosphere too, but I doubt that she expects as much radio play as they’ve gotten. The main challenge is writing about this stuff at all, without becoming too dependent on lurid imagery or therapyspeak, or seeming evasive. Her current solution seems to be just to begin in the middle, to tell it like she might have told it then, in her most self-aware, lucid and candid moments. And maybe she’s still in the middle of it, for all we know–but I have the impression (because the self-awareness etc is so sustained here) that she’s been through some kind of therapy, with whatever lapses experienced or still possible, and of course the idea is to know yourself to be a recovering addict, present tense, no matter how long you’ve been sober. So, while these songs may not be the deepest, as Edd Hurt prev. mentioned, this is how far she’s gotten writing-wise (with anything she’d want to show us now, at least).
The other dark thang Ah thank Ah love now is Lucinda Williams‘ The Ghosts of Highway 20, which is similar to Cook‘s album conceptually, incl. the sonic grid, although here we get up to four guitars—Williams regular Val McCallum, with guests Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, who plays acoustic as well as joining the electric mesh, along with Williams‘ own strings (think she’s credited with some acoustic too): intricate treble skeletons, sometimes whole nervous systems, though never too detailed, more like instant afterimages, visions already falling away—what her voice and words would say if they
could, if they weren’t bound to testify down here on earth, in the dry and moist and funky shadows of the barn (the voice, not slurring as much as on some previous albums, but occasionally decaying, as all things must, especially when “all of my thoughts turn to dust”; also also the bass and drum kits and hand drums are funky shadows etc.).
But the guitars are light through holes in the roof, and also big blowing chunks of her family tree on the title track, for instance, and she’s not trying to grab hold of those, just be mindful of them and dodge and otherwise work around them. Like several of the lyrics are about different kinds of solace. The thoughts turning to dust are from her father’s notes (he died with Alzheimer’s), about what he gets when he might expect tears, and the guitars burn that dust, instead of having to sling around tons of sobs, so it works out pretty well, musically, anyway. And Woody Guthrie‘s “House of Earth” channels a witchy woman, who will show you how to make better boys, also you will take this back to your wife and she will make better girls–she foretells this, in a stoned lullaby sway, while sometimes sliding into him—“you will leave drops of honey” on the couch, she/he will leave money—although (there’s a punchline of sorts).
Yadda yadda, some of it doesn’t work, but another effective use of vocal clarity-to-decay comes in “Louisiana Story,” and also I like the effects of two extended grooves, “Doors of Heaven” (kind of parade gospel, she gets in There and struts her stuff), and “Faith and Grace,” (a big ol storefront church on Main Street, for Exiles, but not for choirs, or handclappers) remind me, as does Cook‘s album, of the pitch for this promo I haven’t listened to yet: supposedly, it’s metal and associated atmospheres for recovering addicts doing yoga, who aren’t scared of triggering sounds, who don’t want the sweety-pie BS of New Age.
Too long, but mostly keepers.