CD review: Julia Weldon – “Light is a Ghost”
An almost perfect record. Released in August, Julia Weldon’s 12-track sophomore album, Light is a Ghost, produced by Saul MacWilliams (Ingrid Michaelson; Dan Romer) is a smooth and tightened presentation of her best work thus far. If this album doesn’t propel Weldon to the mainstream, or meet some other ambiguous marker for what musicians call “success,” all the indie singer/songwriters in New York City should probably just give up.
Normally I contain my enthusiasm for records, because I’ve felt wronged by bands that churn out albums stuffed with filler after sending me a decent single. But this album, with some very pop, upbeat tracks like “Went to My Woman” and “Careful in the Dark,” and softer folk songs with a slow rhythm guitar (“You Never Know” and “Icarus”) you don’t need to skip past any bullshit. 4.5 stars is an expression I wouldn’t use, shouldn’t use, as it’s reserved for the Rolling Stone boys club, for the sort of person who measures the quality of a record with fractions and units. I’m not that sort of person, but 4.5 stars.
Not quite rock, not quite folk, and not quite country have, for now, become younger sub-genres, and pushing at the edges of those genres to find the boundaries between them, Weldon’s album is adequately described on the one-sheet as “American.” The songwriting draws influence from American roots—country, blues, jazz, and folk—to develop the backbone of structured, verse-chorus songs. Painted over that are intensely personal lyrics and breathless moments of strain. Her spotless guitar work, solid voice, and accessible melodies are enhanced by the modern professional touch of MacWilliams in the studio and drums by Adam Christgau (Sia, Tegan and Sara).
Sometimes I picture Weldon as the cute urban cowgirl who stands outside a bar dragging on a cigarette when she is singing, sweet and hushed, “All the gin and all the beer won’t make it better.” In person, Weldon is full of positive energy, often described as “adorable,” high on the momentum; when I interviewed her years ago for VZ Magazine, said to me, “This is who I am, you know?” And I knew.
A good portion are love songs, the sort that embrace the pain, the highs, the mistakes and the complications. “Same Games,” is one of the best on the album—a ballad that benefits from Christgau’s drums, punctuating the beats in Weldon’s smoky voice. I can picture this song as the soundtrack of a black and white indie film, the chorus rising at the final scene when two lovers walk away.
Weldon’s voice is just gravelly enough, bluesy, sometimes country-affected, though she’s from New Jersey and lives in Brooklyn. Beneath fractured emotions, there’s an innate childlike purity in her voice, though not high-pitched. Sounds like: Elliott Smith, Sarah Bettens, or weeks of rain. She’s rightly compared to Suzanne Vega—no vibrato, but sometimes a note will crack or strain, kind of like the scrape of a fingernail across a guitar string or letting go of a long-held sigh. It all comes together, both in “form and content” as Weldon once explained.
This album was recorded carefully, all effects, ambient sounds, keys and guitar overdubs placed just so. In ”You Never Know” a soft rhythm guitar is accompanied by a crackling, slapping sound, like an old cassette tape clicking to the B side. Percussive details prop up Weldon’s songwriting in a way that makes it fresh and crisp.“Marian” is young again.
What Weldon has really done with this album is throw light on herself, and maybe the ghost is the younger Weldon who hides her face on her 2008 DIY-style self-titled debut record. Most of these songs go a long way back to those times spent on “Brooklyn rooftops,” constructions of her past and all its shadows, songs like “Marian,” “Meadow” and “All I Gave Her,” the same chords she’s played for years on stage, the same lyrics that made you think you might “get” her, now recorded with radio-friendly precision.
I saw Weldon perform solo with her acoustic steel string and a harmonica holder on her head at Rockwood in 2011, and I was relieved that the new studio version doesn’t clean up the intimacy of her live act.
The album artwork underscores the theme on light (actualization, life, fame?) A slightly wet, slicked up Julia Weldon faces straight toward a professional camera, a bright light shining directly in her eyes. The magazine-quality photo is so unapologetic, she appears to be a bit sexier, mature, polished. I heard a comment about the new Julia when talking to a Brooklyn kid, who told me, without irony, “Her photos are too cool now.” Yes, and that’s exactly the point, I think.
“I want to write like Bobby Dylan and go to jail like Johnny Cash,” she sings in her grittiest voice in “Round Again,” a fairly standard country tune that brings her adept guitar to the center.
It appears as if Weldon has gone through a vibrant transformation since 2008. Recently she poured her heart out in an interview with 429 Magazine under the added title “Androgynous and Empowered,” and discussed activism with GALA, performed at SXSW, and yes—there’s a “grassroots” style tour coming along as well.
As a child actor, she was no stranger to publicity and an expert at crafting multiple personalities and characters. Through guitar playing and lyrical composition, Weldon could focus on herself—who was the “real” person behind the public image? As a Vassar graduate who majored in philosophy, now pursuing her Master’s in Music Education at Columbia, songwriting is and always has been therapeutic self-expression—and going to NYC to develop her identity isn’t cliché when you consider she refused, at all opportunities, to settle as a cynical starving artist.
That’s probably why so many people were able to relate to her narrative, she says—it’s blatantly honest. The matured Julia Weldon, reinvented on her own terms, is looking directly at you from that glossy front cover. Go to her.
Gigs, album, info at www.juliaweldon.com