I’d like to thank the person that first decided to mix acoustic music with layers of noise and fuzz. Jeff Mangum? Phil Elvrum? Probably too recent. Tom Waits? Maybe. Os Mutantes? Perhaps. Who is responsible isn’t really what concerns me at the moment, but rather what musicians have been doing with the combination of folky music and distorted buzzing recently. The aforementioned Elvrum has been making lo-fi fuzz symphonies in both The Microphones and Mount Eerie (one and the same, really). His fellow Northwesterner, Amy Annelle, has been taking to a similar sound with her outfit The Places, essentially another nom de plume for a sole songwriter’s output. While her previous outing, Call It Sleep found her with the company of members of bands such as Death Cab for Cutie and The Decemberists, playing it sedate and jazzy, Songs For Creeps takes that album’s sleepy folk and trades it in for a more raw and rustic sound, albeit augmented at times with torrents of fuzz and drum machine stomps.
The six minute opener “Miners Lie!” is practically bedroom Led Zeppelin in its rocked-out intensity, slow, trudging drum machine beats clashing with mega-distorted acoustic guitar clangs. What offsets this powerful crash of sounds is Annelle’s voice, sweet and dreamy, yet strong enough to lead such an intense undertaking. As on Call It Sleep, however, Annelle’s lyrics remain dark, asserting lines like “Where’s all the mercury? Where’s all the cyanide? The poison well’s inside you, the poison well’s inside.” However, “Blessed Speed” and “The Lion’s Share” sound more like a female version of Iron & Wine, rustic and bluesy, yet with a sweet and gentle folk presence. The former is a bit more upbeat, with slides-a-blazin’, yet the latter is sparser, almost sounding like a vintage 78 in its lo-fi ambience.
“Mercy Me” adds some creepy electronic backing, taking a melody similar to “House of the Rising Sun” and making it far more eerie. “The Damn Insane Asylum” isn’t for the faint of heart, however. While its melody is calm and pleasant, Annelle’s lyrics tell a different story, one of finding an abandoned asylum, cocaine and fellatio. Meanwhile, “Such as the Fields” finds a muse in Tolstoy, its lyrics inspired by his Resurrection, much in the same way that Call It Sleep took inspiration from Henry Roth’s novel of the same name.
Not all of Songs for Creeps is swathed in distortion. In fact, only small parts of it are. Because of this, however, the album is pocked with little surprises, mostly opting for a quieter sound, yet creating a clamorous din when least expected. Annelle has a good strategy here, and her literate, haunting lyrics make for even more dark joys. Sam Beam should try this sometime.
Microphones – The Glow, Part Two
Iron & Wine – The Creek Drank the Cradle
Smog – Wild Love
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.