We’ve been following the self-taught guitarist from Rhode Island and her, as she says, “quiet music for a loud world” for a while now. Unlike her earlier recordings, the cover of her fifth release Mumblin’ Sue shows neither a photograph nor a collage but an illustration. A skull with winged eyes and red roses in ink and marker. By no less than William Schaff, who has made sinister and intriguing covers with wonderfully weird characters for Okkervil River. About Mumblin’ Sue, he tweeted: “The talented and wonderful Allysen Callery has been kind enough to pick me to do the artwork.” Considering Callery’s combination of complex finger picking and tender vocals, the cover may seem surprising at first and possibly raise expectations of heavier, punk-inspired songs. However, it does suit the dark fairytale aspects of Callery’s writing, which have previously earned her praise as “the Tim Burton of Folk Music”. And Mumblin’ Sue certainly sounds like a character who would be at home in this kind of imagery. Or does the title not signify a character, does it describe someone mumbling Sue’s name? It’s a question that the album won’t answer. Instead, the songs add mysteries of their own.
With verses like glimpses, “In Your Hollow” begins the fairy tale in ghostly, lingering whispers that explore the texture of loss: “the echo of your absence / haunts the air I breathe”. “Your Skin Does not Lie” paints an even more expressionist portrait of a moment, of white eyelashes, sleepy streets and winter skies. Some songs move towards more explicit storytelling. “I Had a Lover I Thought Was My Own” narrates village tales of adultery and “In the Ring” employs the interhuman boxing ring as an inverted fairy ring, where people are exposed to instead of protected from dark magic.
Apart from a cover of Marijohn Wilkin and Dany Dill’s “Long Black Veil” with backing vocals from Kelly Cleveland of Red Eye Flight and the instrumental “Your Minnesota Sunrise”, the songs rely solely on Callery’s guitar and voice. The sparse arrangements allow enough space for the inclined listener to study the album’s exhibition of portraits of moments and look for or dream up clues to their mysteries.
Two songs stand out in complexity and brilliance. “Lily of the Valley” strolls through landscapes with poisonous secrets, conjures up “White Coral Bells” and ends, intriguingly: “I am the daughter of Mother’s Nature’s Son”. By the way, the video, which Alex shared last week (see below), features Callery’s daughter Ava. Carried by a melodically flowing guitar progression and remarkably varied vocals, “Spare Parts” tells its tale with strong, evocative lines such as “I’ll build a man with a gold heart / out of the spare parts / you don’t want anymore” and “it’s the ones with the broken hearts / that cry tears of joy”. The song flickers like a lighthouse somewhere between magical Oz and Frankenstein’s miserable abode. Which, in a way, is true for the entire album. Marvellous.
Review by: Anne Malewski
Lily of the Valley
Photo credit Keely Varada