Double Roses (Liberator)
Don’t believe the reductionist storylines which develop around records, not even – or maybe especially – not the official ones. They’re almost always half the story, or a contrived truth.
Take the second album from Karen Elson, an English woman who made her first album in Nashville while domiciled with an American musician of some note.
That album, The Ghost Who Walks, was southern gothic in the sense of being laced with the atmosphere and the temper of murder ballads, doomed love and forsaken dreams. It was pretty good too.
This new album, a long six years on from that debut, was recorded in the USA but with Elson reflecting on her past in England, with American producer Jonathan Wilson, who has made a more than decent career as a performer and producer recreating a certain ‘70s sensibility.
So we are told that this makes Double Roses (a title borrowed from a Sam Shepard poem) more English in its roots and more American west coast in its sound, more folk and pop and less moody soul/rock/country.
Which is sort of true but also less interesting than what Double Roses actually delivers.
Elson begins with an almost plaintive folk melody, assertive glissandos on harp and a flute solo in Wonderblind. So, yeah, we get the folk signposts.
The title track brings in a shuffling rhythm and a dreamy vocal line that blurs the space around the glistening piano and the slide guitar. So yeah, there’s the west coast I guess.
But in Hell And Highwater, Elson and Wilson tip both back (to Judee Sills) and forward (to the suggestion of electronic soul) in a stately song that mixes in both strings and wired electric guitar.
And it’s followed by the high airiness of The End which is outright pretty and touches on both Sufjan Stevens and the kind of delicate ballad you can still find in corners of Nashville.
Why Am I Waiting is modernist in its minimalist repetition and a liquid bass which feels electronic but probably isn’t, but has a soul song delivery. It’s a surprisingly effective combination whose rewards come in the ascending tension and urgency of the climax.
In stark contrast, Million Stars feels like Tift Merritt singing with Wilco in country mode: laidback, softly firm and gazing upwards. Tension here is replaced with space, and it prepares the way for Wolf which expands that space into night skies and a lit torch of a song.
Wilson’s decision to put Elson’s vocals even further forward pays dividends across Double Roses. While there’s nothing necessarily outstanding in her perfectly good voice there’s more than enough there to tell a story separate from the lyrics, and its positioning allows a naturally attractive tone to work its way into your heart.
She wins by accumulation rather than sensation. Consequently, by the time Distant Shore closes the album, your familiarity with that voice allows her to sing without affectation and yet cast out over dark waters, the song doing the work.
And it goes almost unnoticed that this song is a timeless moment of folk, your attention taken by its appeal rather than its roots. Which is probably the highest compliment you could pay a very good record.