(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Recording review - Kelli Scarr, Dangling Teeth (2012)

Kelli Scarr is still hauntingly beautiful as she creates her own version of country

Sophomore albums are the bane of the recording industry. Band or performers spend years developing their sound and then use up their best material on their debut album. Then they're rushed into the studio to follow up. If their second effort doesn't click, the industry spits them out. There are plenty of performers who overcome, often with the help of the industry, but they're the lucky ones. The indie scene is a little kinder because there's less money at stake, but sophomore albums are often a muddle that doesn't deliver on the freshman hype.

Kelli Scarr defies that by taking the haunting indie folk sound she showcased in Piece (review) and migrating west. On its surface, Dangling Teeth is largely a country album with folk and rock moments. But Scarr's sparse, hand-joined arrangements, her retro-soaked, echoed voice, and her instinctive feel for late night solitude permeate the album. The pedal steel textures and heavier rhythms expand her style and her underlying strengths bloom into fuller expression.

In the stronger country moments, Scarr's voice evokes Emmy Lou Harris while the rest of the album reminds me of the Cowboy Junkies. But Kelli Scarr is no Margo Timmins wannabe. Instead, it's her sense of pacing that draws the comparison -- subtle timing that can suggest weariness, surrender, or languor depending on the context.

Take the moody sound of It Ain't Me. Tremolo guitar chords, echoed vocals, and a bluesy, single coil guitar line shimmer together in a lazy groove. Before Scarr starts singing, the feeling is introspective, but the lyrics quickly shift the song into a sense of checked anger and frustration. The chorus takes that inward energy and turns it towards its deserving target. Scarr's voice picks up some of Tori Amos' mocking tone in the second verse. The key, though, is the bridge that takes over the last third of the song. It channels an undercurrent of dark rage. Noisy, chaotic energy builds into a thunderhead, raising the question of whether the darkness will conquer.

The last track, I'll Always Wait, counters that mood. The atmospheric intro fades in and falls into a dreamy groove with a hesitant beat. Scarr's expressive voice lazily toys with the rhythm:
Lost days away
I wait and wait
Forgetting not
I found a place
She gives the song room to build. The chorus blooms into a new set of changes:
Please don't ever change
Oh, I am here and I will stay the same
Please don't ever change
Cause I will always wait...
Oh, I will wait for you
I love the way her soulful voice soars on that first "wait" with a hint of Great Gig In The Sky. The sweet, tasteful solo sets up the song's evolution, laying the groundwork for a shift from Pink Floyd's Breathe to Neil Young's Down By The River. The repetition of the chorus lyrics is becomes a desperate prayer.

Neither of those songs fall into the country feel that Scarr explores in the rest of the album. The first several tracks cover this well, from the country rock twang of You Could Be So Great to the traditional country shuffle of Our Joy. I especially enjoy the steel guitar drenched folk of Dangling Teeth, where the simple parts come together to create a sparse completeness. This reminds me of some of My Morning Jacket's slower material, especially how the rhythm guitar and steel offset each other.

Dangling Teeth is a worthy second album. As much as I enjoyed Piece, Kelli Scarr's musical development shows through. With genuine country sounds, she still keeps her essential style.

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