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

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Recording review - Ambrosia Parsley, Weeping Cherry (2013/2015)

Pervasive sadness is softened into dreamy surrender


The timeless, unanchored feel of Ambrosia Parsley’s music reflects the narrative for the reissue of her 2013 solo album Weeping Cherry: both are hard to pin down to a particular moment or linear progression. The former lead singer for the moody Shivaree had plans to release a solo album as far back as 2008, but it never came together. Eventually, she released the tune “Rubble” in 2010, sparking renewed interest, but the album took another three years before it came out on France’s Fargo Records label. Now, another year and a half later, it’s finally getting an American release on Barbes Records.

Parsley has said that Weeping Cherry is rooted in a hard year of loss, which comes strongest in her lyrics. There is a pervasive sense of sadness in these songs, but her arrangements and singing soften the songs into dreamy surrender, rather than outright depression. Even when the undercurrent of loss rises to the the surface, like her line in “Catalina”, “Another tear/ Salt the butter on our daily bread,” the music keeps the emotions from overwhelming the songs.

There’s a lot of her former band’s retro sound in these songs, above and beyond the continuity of Parsley’s ethereal voice. But her writing shows other strong influences, particularly Radiohead and Elvis Costello. Like those artists, she’s more than just a talented singer/songwriter; each of these tracks feature arrangements that add depth and complexity. It’s interesting to hear her swing from retro pop to more modern styles, but she maintains a kind of languid delivery that creates a siren-like seductiveness. At the same time, her voice reminds me of Jill Sobule, with a vulnerable surface around a strongly grounded center.

That Jill Sobule comparison shines on “My Hindenberg”. Part of it is the simple, restrained acoustic guitar that complements the clear, folky vocal. It has a similar historical perspective to Sobule’s “Vrbana Bridge”, but rather than a snapshot story reminiscence, Parsley builds a moving metaphor for her own loss. She ties the iconic images of the Hindenberg disaster, full of helpless impotence, to her lyrics and makes them deeply persona. The bridge is particularly poignant, “On the ground, we almost can’t believe it/ You were out of time and we were all out of place.

Most the music on Weeping Cherry is more layered than "My Hindenberg". Parsley’s Radiohead side turns up on that first single, “Rubble”. The warm bassline and guitar interjections are tethered to a deliberate drag beat rhythm. Think “Creep” mixed with a stripped down version of “Airbag” from OK Computer. Like “Creep”, Parsley locks into a low sense of self-esteem and fear that is drained of direct emotional weight. The arrangement leaves plenty of space to fit in a host of details. The guitar textures are especially sweet, rawly expressing the feelings that her vocals seem too scared to voice.

The Costello influence is more pervasive. Often, it’s her thoughtful phrasing, like on the title track, or a similarly handled chord run on “Only Just Fine.” But it’s most obvious in the dark, moody music and sardonic lyrics of “Make Me Laugh”. From the very start, the tune is unsettled, with stark percussion and eerie echoed tones. The mood abruptly shifts context, though, when the vocals come in with the evocative lines, “Make me laugh / When it's 'goodbye'/ With a bill and a body count so high." The verses match Costello at his introspective best, full of musing defiance, but the walking bass and Parsley’s breathy delivery cut the creepiness and make it more like a disoriented dream. I love the jazz standard feel to the progression with its tremolo guitar accents. On the original release, this was a perfect ending for the album. This 2015 reissue tacks on “The Answer (Tim and Becky’s Wedding)”, which is more of a love song, albeit with hint of a 'beautiful disaster' vibe. While this bonus is a pretty song, it’s not as powerful an ending for Weeping Cherry.

While most of these songs would be at home on a Shivaree release, they do cover a wide sonic range. "My Hindenberg", "Rubble", and "Make Me Laugh" each show different facets of Parsley's writing style. Fortunately, her voice provides the common thread to tie these disparate pieces together.

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