CD Advance Review: Chelsea Crowell’s Crystal City
As you enter Chelsea Crowell’s Crystal City, the sign should say, “City of Heartbreak.” 8 of its 11 tracks deal with lost love. You don’t need any backstory to appreciate these songs, but it’s hard not to wonder what was going on in Ms. Crowell’s life when she wrote them. In my questions to her about the record I avoided asking directly, but she knew the issue was hanging there, so she brought it up and politely declined to go into details, saying “Let’s just leave it that I had the hardest two years of my life . . . and I am not just talking about marshmallow heart break, that might have felt like a beach vacation.”
The centerpieces of Crystal City are two ballads, Baptized Part One & Two. In the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Part One, our heroine is cut off from her lover, hiding out in the last existing tree, contemplating the last blade of grass. And then they cut down the tree. On paper made from that tree, she writes to the absent lover but knows her letter will never get there (the postman is dead) and even if it does, her lover won’t be able to find her. Despite her distress, and contrary to what she might (or might not) recall about rational thought and behavior, she writes that last letter on the last paper from the last tree with one thought: “Are you heaven bound, or hell bent? So I can know, which way to be sent.”
The Baptized songs have a folk feel, but they’re a bit edgier than that makes them sound thanks to some interesting background effects. In Part One, those effects were done with two tracks of Norma guitar played with an ebow, a device that vibrates a string to play a solid tone. Those effects are carried over in Part Two on a tone wheel organ.
Ms. Crowell: “My favorite song on the record is Baptized Part Two. Only because it is so very very loyal and unconditional. . . . It is one simple sentiment; wherever you go, so do I.” Put another way, this is not the kind of “love” that makes your former lover’s rabbit nervous whenever water is boiled. This is true love in the middle of absolute hopelessness, which is, perhaps, a love so strange that Ms. Crowell chose to use a metaphorical setting so that we mere mortals could relate.
Aside from Baptized, Crystal City’s songs are mostly literal; the other six “lost love” songs deal with some aspect of life after the breakup. For example, if you’ve ever been through the end of a major relationship you might recall answering the door late at night to find the ex on the front porch. Or maybe you’ve been that ex, standing there, wondering if he’s coming to the door. In I’m Gonna Freeze, Ms. Crowell sings about the morning after such an evening: “We aren’t who we were last night. I’ve come apart, he’s turned to ice.” In another verse, the song reminds us of those times when you’re alone and, against your better judgment, you pick up the phone:
So I broke down I called his house
Well I guess she lives there now
I wonder if she knows about me
I wonder if she’s gonna freeze
I’m Gonna Freeze serves up its story with a surf beat, a really nice sound that fits perfectly with Ms. Crowell’s solid vocals. You can listen to it here. You could imagine hearing this song in some really cool late night bar in New York or L.A., and not one person would think that Johnny Cash’s granddaughter is doing the singing. Unless they really thought about it, and then they might.
Despite Ms. Crowell’s family roots in country music, she is not a country artist. In Better Than Her, however, she proves she can sing it, 70’s AM radio style, in a song about an encounter between former lovers, one of whom is about to marry someone else. The chorus goes like this:
I’ve seen the ring
I know, I know the date
But she, she can’t love you
The way that I do
Crystal City includes an instrumental cut, For Stormy, but it didn’t start out as instrumental or as For Stormy. Ms. Crowell explains:
[For Stormy] was originally a song with lyrics called After I’ve Been Gone. . . . Then one night there were huge thunder storms and tornados as happens in Tennessee in the spring and fall and we recorded that song, which is why you can hear thunder and tornado sirens (in the key of B minor, we investigated). We shared some (a bottle) of Jack Daniels and had the track done before the sun came up, but the vocals never fit. One day I will hand that song over to a singer that can actually sing it, you need a real voice for it. So I said cut them (the lyrics) and asked Loney to play lap steel mimicking my vocal melody. I love it. I will not pretend that I was not majorly influenced by the Sleepwalkers when I was about 8 years old.
If you listen closely to For Stormy, you will hear the thunder and sirens that Ms. Crowell is talking about. Listening to it reminded me of the sound of the bus engine in Nothing But Time, a song Jackson Browne recorded in the back of his tour bus back in 1977. Which in turn reminded me that Jackson Browne did a post-breakup album (I’m Alive) after his relationship with Daryl Hannah ended. Bruce Springsteen did one (Tunnel Of Love), as did Bob Dylan (Blood On The Tracks) – in fairness, Dylan disputed that it had anything to do with his personal life, but listen to the record. Each of those records turned out to be significant works for the artist in question. You have to be careful with comparisons, so I won’t make any, let’s just say that the main thing keeping Crystal City off this list is that it’s only Ms. Crowell’s second record, she’s just getting started, whereas these artists were further along in their careers when lost love became their muse.
I like all the records I review. If I don’t like it, I don’t review it (that’s one of the privileges the union negotiated for those of us who happen to be Featured Contributors here at No Depression). Some of the records I hear, I like a lot. Occasionally, a record will blow me away. That has happened three times in 2011, and Crystal City is one of the three. It is a unique album. Ms. Crowell’s talents as a singer/poet/songwriter are formidable. As good as Crystal City is, I will venture a guess that we can expect a lot more from Ms. Crowell in the future. As her producer, Loney Hutchins, told me, “I really believe in Chelsea as a talent that hasn’t even fully blossomed. . . . she understands songwriting on an intuitive level.”
Mr. Hutchins also produced Ms. Crowell’s first record, and he does more than just produce Crystal City. They had a little help here and there, but the record was basically put together by the two of them. Mr. Hutchins told me this about the process of making the record:
The majority of the album was actually recorded between Chelsea and myself. In fact, Chelsea was manning the controls when I was tracking. Her previous album was very similar. Of course, a lot of this new album is sparse arrangements and it is just an efficient way of working, especially when Chelsea comes into the studio with completely new material and intent on capturing it then and there. With all that in mind, Chelsea is on the gut string guitar most of the time save for a few percussion things here or there. I am playing bass, hand drums, keys, lap steel, various guitars.
Chelsea’s old collaborator, Steven Braren, recorded the opening track [Move On] and the first half of “Baptized’ when she was in NYC earlier this year. They had a band called ‘Jane Only’ for a while in Nashville before she started doing solo stuff. He’s playing some atmospherics [the ebow tracks described above] on ‘Baptized Part One.’
[Ben Martin (drums), Dave Gleason (guitar) and Jacob Morris (cello) also play on select tracks.]
Even though Dylan denied that Blood On The Tracks was about his personal experience, he reportedly said this during a radio interview: “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean, you know, people enjoying that type of pain, you know?” It’s a legitimate question, I suppose, but it’s also a bit disingenuous. Music born out of pain uplifts us for many reasons. It reminds us that we survive and move on, sometimes without bitterness or hatred. It serves a practical purpose, like group therapy, as it allows us to see some aspect of our own experience in the lyrics written by another wounded soul. At its highest level, music born out of pain is uplifting because of its artistic beauty. The album Crystal City uplifts for these reasons, and because we know, despite all indications to the contrary, that really wasn’t the last tree or blade of grass. Out of all this sadness and sorrow comes new life and, in this case, at least, poetry and music that sustains us.
Crystal City is being released by Cleft Music.