Thursday, November 20, 2014

album review: 'black is the color' by lucette

We're now returning to the realm of independent country - and long time viewers know what that means, another rant about country music's lousy web presence! But you know, I wouldn't keep bringing it up if it didn't have some weight, and outside of some truly stellar country blogs and journalists I follow, tracking down independent country music is often a harrowing task. I get that it's a more 'traditional' or 'old-fashioned' brand of music, but if indie or alternative country wants to maintain its foothold or increase it, some artists need to improve online buzz and presence.

Because let's face it, even very mainstream acts are suffering if they don't have that online buzz and hype - even Garth Brooks, one of the biggest names in country music even today who has gone on record calling YouTube 'the devil', has had an at best underwhelming opening week and was forced to hastily launch a web presence days later. And that's a country act who's a household name! As much as I'd like to think that my humble channel has done something to give indie country acts more exposure, the lack of a 'Pitchfork' equivalent or any sort of aggregator for indie or alternative country has left me and other country bloggers scrambling a bit at the end of the year for artists we might have missed.

And here's a real glaring oversight on my part - the debut album from Canadian country artist Lucette, titled Black Is The Color. Based out of Edmonton, Lucette was originally on the path for a more mainstream brand of easy listening before she met Dave Cobb, the critically acclaimed producer who worked on Jason Isbell's Southeastern and both of Sturgill SImpson's releases - in other words, she was finally connecting with the right people. She brought an album's worth of material to Nashville to record and scrapped all of it in favour of a darker, more pitch-black Americana direction, with some comparisons made to Nick Cave's Murder Ballads. And major labels would have none of it - Black Is The Colour nearly didn't get released, but now it's finally here and earning a lot of rave reviews across the board. So while it's a little late, I made it a priority to give a few deep listens - what did I get?

Honestly, a little less than I was expecting. Now let me start by saying Black Is The Color is by no means a bad album - in fact, for all intents and purposes it's pretty damn good and does a lot of what I like to see in country music in terms of its flavour and style. It definitely establishes Lucette as a major talent stepping onto the scene... and yet the deeper I delved into the songwriting, the more I got exasperated. I mean, this is nearly everything I love about country music - great texture, solid melodies, interesting stories, an element of real human darkness, even murder ballads, and she's Canadian, so why the hell isn't this really clicking for me?

Because when you look at the instrumentation, this is exactly what I love to hear in country music. The sounds are crisp and sharp courtesy of Dave Cobb's masterful production work, the guitarwork has a ton of texture, the percussion has a lot of sandy grit, the strings arrangements are gorgeous, and even the solitary fuzzy synth line on the title track feels appropriately placed within the mix. Yet in distinct comparison to an act like Sturgill Simpson and his more lo-fi aesthetic, the sounds here are much cleaner and still have that rich timbre. There's still a little more reverb than I'd truly love, especially on the vocals, and I do wish some of the melodies had a little more presence, but for the most part the mix has a rich spaciousness where every tone stands out. I love the eerie bleakness of the title track, the snarled guitars on 'Able May', the gorgeous vocal interplay between Lucette and Brent Cobb on 'Poor Sweet Me', the shimmering guitar melody and the massive, roiling background textures during the interlude supplemented by the strings on 'River Rising', and of course the dusty neotraditional vibe of 'Fields Of Plenty' with the steel guitars. I can't find a real instrumental misstep on this record, and that is saying something.

And really, from a technical songwriting standpoint, I can say the same. One of the most defining traits of Lucette's songwriting is saying simultaneously a lot in terms of detail and yet very little in terms of established 'plot' with regards to the stories she tells, inviting the listeners to fill in the blanks through those details, which cultivates a sense of mystery on her album that can alternatively be enticing for its mystery or frustrating for its lack of solid direction. The most prominent example is 'Bobby Reid', which from the video implies her carrying out revenge on the titular character for doing her wrong, but the most prominent lyric in the song is 'Won't you cut me down'. If I were to guess an interpretation of the song, he has indeed done her wrong and has either two options: leave if he loves and respects her, or stay if he wants her and face the consequences - either way, he needs to make a choice. And that theme of being the woman scorned and neglected is constant across this album, from the title track to the 'Jolene-aftermath' of 'Able May' to the heartbreak of 'Poor Sweet Me'. And what I like about this album is the framing - the dark, bleak tones and Lucette's delivery do a lot to not so much show obvious grief or rage in the vein of Sharon Van Etten or genuine despair and sadness of Lykke Li or even the weary resignation of Karen Jonas, but a sort of muted numbness that adds a ton of tension to the darker moments of this record where you don't know if she's going to snap at any second. It really is going for a southern gothic atmosphere, and on songs like 'River Rising', it nails it. And on brighter songs, like on the excellent Canada-centric 'Fields Of Plenty' and the cooing yearning of 'Dream With Me Dream', she also comes across pretty well.

But here's where we run into my first issue with the songwriting, and that is that the thinly sketched stories can make some tracks harder to follow and understand than they really should be. The murder ballad 'Muddy Waters' is a prime example - maybe it's her slurred, reverb-saturated delivery, but outside of the fact that she appears to be reflecting on a murder that took place within her family years later, I can barely make heads or tails of what is really happening in that song, or even who died or who killed them. You could make the argument it's unclear because of the 'heat of the moment', but there's a thin line between intentionally vague darkness and songwriting that needed another draft. It doesn't help matters when you get songs that fall towards pure melodrama, like 'Poor Sweet Me' and 'Darkness', which come across as adolescent self-pity and infatuation with darkness. It's these points that call to mind a bad Lana Del Rey comparison, but I will say that Lucette's framing is better and the tone of her material never really romanticizes her bad impulses - hell, I'd make the argument she's at least somewhat aware how over-the-top and unsettling her infatuations can be. But I will say that placing the song 'Fly On' where she finally lets the guy go and realizes her own mistakes right after 'Darkness' was probably a poor choice, because the sudden burst of maturity feels completely out of left field. 

And I think some of the larger issue is with Lucette herself. Now she's a very good singer - she has great tone, a beautiful voice that definitely shows its training while still remaining organic - but her delivery can come across a little inert to me, and I really started to question whether or not she was trying to go for an air of numb disaffection or she just wasn't emoting the way she needed to really display heartbreak or a sense of passion. It really becomes apparent on the final track 'Utah', which kicks up the tempo and energy significantly, and yet Lucette is much more reserved and refined and doesn't really match it - once again, there's a difference between quiet expressions of passion and a lack of emotive delivery, and this album trips over that line more than it should.

But overall, Black Is The Color is a pretty damn good debut album. Not a great one, and not one that overtakes the more grounded, complex darkness of an album like Daylight & Dark by Jason Eady, but still pretty solid all the same. For me, it's a light 7/10 and definitely a recommendation, especially if you're a fan of extremely well-produced indie country that has some real darkness beneath it. One thing's for sure, Lucette will be a name to watch in the coming years, and I'm happy that her career is off to a very solid start.

No comments:

Post a Comment