Wednesday, July 14, 2010
A dazzling musical collision between The Bad Seeds, Marlene Dietrich and Hank Williams, Karen Elson's wonderfully hypnotic The Ghost Who Walks is one of the first truly great albums of this very young decade. Far from being a vanity project from a beautiful model, Elson's album is a truly bewitching and absolutely compelling work that shows her as an artist of massive talent who should have a very long career in music ahead of her.
Born in the early part of 1979 in Oldham, England, the striking red-headed Elson began her career as a model, while she was a teenager, and immediately became a favorite of many top designers ranging from Marc Jacobs to Jean-Paul Gaultier. As far from the stereotypical air-headed super-model as possible, Elson has been dabbling in music, film and art since she first began to really make a name for herself in the early parts of the last decade.
A gifted vocalist and songwriter, Elson really began paving her way in the muisc industry with her acclaimed time in the ambitious New York Cabaret troupe The Citizens Band. Wowing audiences and critics with her delicious vocal renditions of songs from the catalogues of everyone from The Velvet Underground to Elvis Presley, Elson caught the attention of artists like Robert Plant and Cat Power (both of whom she lent her unforgettable vocal chops to).
While her skills as a great song interrupter weren't in question, few knew just how solid a songwriter Elson was becoming during this time. Not even husband Jack White, who Elson met when she appeared in The White Stripes stunning Floria Sigismondi "Blue Orchid" video, until he heard her one day singing one of her songs in private in their Nashville home. Urged on by his excitement at her material, Elson took the major step of preparing an album and, with White and several other top musicians on board, The Ghost Who Walks began to come together last year.
Taking a cue from nickname she had in her school days, Elson's The Ghost Who Walks is a really wonderful debut work that features beautifully inventive (and yet wisely understated) production from White, a dozen beautifully designed songs, a top of the line band and Elson firing on all cylinders as creative leader. The Ghost Who Walks is one of the first albums of this decade (along with The Sleigh Bells debut) that feels like it has a legitimate shot at becoming a classic. Its freewheeling spirit is absolutely refreshing among the deliberately plastic and robotic pop that is currently controlling the summer's releases.
While the album is remarkably consistent as a whole there are some definite highlights, including the stunning opening set of songs that recall the Murder Ballads of Cave and Cash, as well as the poetic collaborations between Exene Cervenka and Lydia Lunch. The album's title track and first single, "The Ghost Who Walks" opens with a bit that sounds like Donald Rubinstein's Martin score before coming out blazing with Dean Fertita's commanding guitar and organ work and Elson's beautiful vocal that is both seductive and menacing. Equally as powerful are the follow-up tracks, the bruising "The Truth is in the Ground" and the swampy "Pretty Babies". Elson is a commanding lead throughout but White never lets the band get lost in the mix, especially Carl Broemel whose gorgeous sounding pedal steel guitar is present on over half the album's tracks.
While the album has a definite country and rockabilly sound throughout, a couple of the most remarkable tracks show the influence of German composer Kurt Weill and obvious Elson influence Marlene Dietrich, such as "A Hundred Years From Now" which would have been right at home in a Von Sternberg film as re-imagined by David Lynch. The Velvet Underground and Nico's influence can also be felt, but what is more remarkable than the wide variety of influences on the album is Elson's ability to mix them up and make them her own. The Ghost Who Walks is the kind of truly great Americana record that only someone from outside the country could deliver.
Elson's debut only slightly slips on a couple of tracks that are more straightforward country than anything else, such as "Lunasa" and "The Last Laugh". They are far from bad songs though, they just feel slightly limp when placed beside such powerfully strange and adventurous songs like "The Birds They Circle" and the powerhouse closer, "Mouths to Feed." Elson offers a quote by Anais Nin in The Ghost Who Walks' liner notes and, like Nin's best works, Karen's debut is a wildly seductive and original vision from a clearly talented artist. I really can't wait to hear and see what she comes up with next.