Sufjan Stevens, geography aficionado and indie folk wunderkind, seems to have taken a liking to Treble’s hometown of San Diego. The newest signing to Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty label is SD’s Castanets and the second release by fellow Diegan Liz Janes also has the privilege of being on the famed Michigander’s label. It’s hard to say exactly why he’s chosen these artists, specifically, as Stevens is not now, nor ever was, a resident of America’s Finest City. But after hearing Poison & Snakes, I can say that there is one thing that Stevens and Janes have in common — an uncanny talent for writing brilliant gothic folk tunes.
Poison & Snakes begins with “Wonderkiller,” a subtle, girl-group ballad which turns into a giant arrangement after the first verse, going from guitar, bass and drums to a full horn section, propelling the song from something decent into something spectacular, a feat which Janes pulls off well throughout the course of the album. “Streetlight” is a much simpler rock song, in which Janes sings “it’s dirty, dirty, dirty here and the sun always shines,” a line that almost sounds like it’s coming from the perspective of an outsider, coming to San Diego through the desert wastelands of East County.
The most instantly appealing track on Poison & Snakes is the title track, a country-tinged folk track that recalls the sweet bluegrass of Gillian Welch set to a boisterous, carnivalesque waltz. In this song, Janes sings of her loneliness to a lover, “it’s all snakes, it’s all snakes without you,” in the tried-and-true tradition of sad country music. “Sets to Cleaning” is a quieter, woozy folk track that shares more in common with PJ Harvey than anyone within the C&W genre, though nowhere near the unrestrained chaos of “Who the Fuck?” or “Yuri-G.”
Further PJ Harvey influence shines on the melancholy “Ocean,” which also recalls the dark, southern balladry of Shannon Wright, as does the following track, “Vine.” Yet, the latter one-ups the former by adding a louder arrangement, half-way through, changing the song from bare-bones Americana to intense, rowdy rock `n’ roll. And it’s hard to beat a track like “Go Between,” a xylophone-laden folk rock track that’s the closest thing on the album to a straightforward pop song, despite tempo and time-signature changes.
I don’t know for sure what brought Sufjan Stevens to discover talents like Liz Janes in such a faraway destination as San Diego, but we’re fortunate that he did. Janes is an immensely gifted songwriter and any label would be lucky to have a musical asset such as hers.
PJ Harvey & John Parish – Dance Hall at Louise Point
Rilo Kiley – More Adventurous
Shannon Wright – Flight Safety
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.