High On Heartstrings (Flynella)
THIS IS A TROJAN HORSE of an album, the part of Odysseus (who legend has it could handle himself on the lyre and wasn’t bad at telling a tall tale, as his long-suffering missus, Penelope, could attest) played by Jo Caseley.
The plan: disarm them with the gentle and the welcoming, the familiar and the fun; then while they are toasting you, slip out and slip in the knife.
With an attractive voice and clean production, High On Heartstrings plays like a solid mainstream country album, ticking off key indicators as it goes. An easy shuffle rhythm and mandolin picking (Houseless Never Homeless) or a real toe-tapper with happy steel (Your Friend’s A Lesbian); a slower, bluesier pace and working woman earthiness (Hard Way To Make A Living) or high harmonies and slide (High On Heartstrings); a first drink of the evening/first bending of the guitar strings moment (Take Me To The Boozer) that segues into a tougher, three drinks in and talking to the barman song (Special). And a song to lay your lonely head down to, or hold someone close one more time to, as the album’s farewell (Sorry).
But listen to what she is singing and you realise that while there are paeans to a solid partnership and moments of celebration, Caseley isn’t playing all that nice really.
Special finds us listening to the verbal (that you suspect has and will again end up being physical) battering being handed out to a woman by her partner who tells her “You can’t fly so you crawl, you’re worth nothing at all/You’re a psycho a freak, shut your mouth up don’t speak”. While Houseless Never Homeless puts its faith in the value of a family intact no matter the circumstances, there is an undercurrent of defiant defensiveness percolating within that speaks of a litany of judgements already inflicted on each family member.
If Your Friend’s A Lesbian celebrates, it is with a sense of “what’s wrong with you?” to smalltown small mindedness, though Caseley isn’t afraid of laying on some judgement of her own as Perfect Life finds her dismantling the façade of a singer (“Little girls look up to you but you never earned it/It’s not real, it’s not real”) who even if we don’t know we certainly recognise (“All your stories are staged, there’s no natural about you”), before sinking the slipper (“Should I call you at night when you’re so sad and lonely and you’re only a stones throw away from needing to be saved from your perfect life?”).
The title track celebrates an escape from childhood damage for a “broken child” now adult, but the anger and the bone-deep hurt are palpable, just as palpable as the crushed spirit of a mother worn so far down in Take Me To The Boozer that the bar seems the only viable escape. It’s so worn that even the get out of jail card, the I’m probably just having a bad day jovial throw away, in the last line, “I know there’s a better way/I’ll stay calm and meditate”, seems at best temporary, if not self-delusion.
And that final song, Sorry? It addresses the wreckage of the Stolen Generations, the “identities and culture lost forever, broken hearts and broken souls”, and ask those who still argue it was done for good (as expressed just last week by one of the morally bankrupt “leaders” of the referendum’s No camp), “How do you steal a child from the safe warm loving screaming arms of a mother, and auntie, a tribe?”.
Just a nice country album? Hmm, the things you can get away with when your target is looking the other way.
High On Heartstrings is released on October 27 but you can order in advance an autographed copy at www.jocaseley.com