With her solo debut, Honey from the Tombs, Amy Millan has accomplished something of which I am uniquely jealous. Millan, half of the male / female vocal frontage for the band Stars, which also, of course, makes her one of the cast of thousands contributing to the Canadian supergroup Broken Social Scene, wrote most of the songs on the album long before those acts came to fruition. The fact that these songs from her shrouded past shine as such marvelous little pop country gems is what makes the album so fantastic, and also raises my ire. You see, when I look back on some of my early writing (to be truthful, some of my current writing as well), I read in utter revulsion. Poems lack any sense of actual poetry, short stories are devoid of any kind of fluid prose, and ideas for novels are so hackneyed as to play almost like a Mad Magazine parody. Writers are their own worst critics to be sure, but I still remember the first time I realized my early writing was sub-par at best. Somehow I wrangled myself a headlining spot at a poetry reading (if there is such a thing as ‘headlining’ in poetry) with all of my friends in attendance. While I was billed, the rest of the evening was open mic, leading to two audience members reading one poem each. The poems from each of these interlopers were absolutely stunning, making my own seem like a fast food hamburger after an appetizer of fine caviar. For Millan to be able to resurrect songs from her past without fear, and furthermore to have these tracks sound as fresh and current as anything else on the Arts & Crafts roster is more than just admirable, its remarkable.
In trying to create this record, Millan was at odds with herself over the effort to find cohesion between the pop and country songs she had written. A friend finally told her that the thru line was her extremely versatile voice, which can sound smoky and sultry as well as spirited and coy. That friend was absolutely correct as is evidenced by the first two songs on the album. “Losin You” kicks off Honey from the Tombs, which sounds like an inspiration from the Cleveland band Rocket from the Tombs as well as a reference to a statement by Tom Waits about honey being used in Egyptian burials, and is a fine example of the spare and lonely folk and country inspired songs throughout the album. The grounding for the song is mostly in Millan’s intimate vocals and Dan Whiteley’s guitars. The second song, “Skinny Boy,” is more of a pop affair, with busy, resonant drums and even a glockenspiel! Several members of the BSS crew make appearances on the song, which still retains the running references to loneliness. Throughout the album, Millan sings her own background vocals, which turn out to be an incredibly wise artistic choice. No one can harmonize with Amy Millan quite like Amy Millan, I suppose. That effect, which is found in the short lament “Ruby II,” is somewhat reminiscent of the sweet tones found on recent albums by Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins as well as Neko Case.
Like all great country albums, Honey from the Tombs is rooted in alcohol-fueled sadness. Whether she chooses a shot of whiskey, a snort from the bottle of gin, or she’s dripping tears in her beer, Millan captures that late night at the bar pathos with which we can all relate. When in “Baby I” she sadly sings, “I’ll get over you,” we don’t believe her for a second, and that’s exactly her intention. “Headsfull” takes another detour into pop territory, and will certainly make some heads turn in thinking that the song is an outtake from Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. Dan Whiteley’s mandolin as well as Chris Quinn’s banjo in “Hard Hearted” and “Blue in Yr Eye,” (the latter recorded around one microphone, giving it that real homemade country feel) add that fine touch of authenticity and timelessness. All that seem to be missing are a jug and a washboard for that true Emmet Otter-like warmth. “Come Home Loaded Roadie” is the only track that is truly solo Millan, just her vocals and a droning omnichord. Millan sums up all of these lonely feelings brilliantly in “He Brings Out the Whiskey in Me,” where she sings, “When you’re getting over troubles around / When you’re getting over lovers that let you down / When you’re paying for the past / It all don’t seem so bad / When ice is rining in your whiskey glass.” Amen, sister. Like Homer Simpson said, “Alcohol – the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”
It seems as though some of the recent output by these BSS alums have captured American music in a way Americans can’t seem to grasp, much like the Band used to in the late sixties and early seventies. Her recent touring partner, Jason Collett, succeeding in painting the same kind of folk and country-esque landscapes now that American country has either become accented electric comedy or so-called ‘patriotic’ nonsense. Well, I’ve never been one to believe in governmental imposed boundaries, and music should actually be like Canada’s healthcare system, universal. So go ahead, Ms. Millan, keep reaching into that musical well, I’ll stand on guard for thee.