Amy Annelle – A School of Secret Dangers

Amy Annelle
A School of Secret Dangers

Before we get started with another review, let’s just take a moment and applaud the good work of the folks at Hush Records this year. With Kind of Like Spitting, Fancie, Corrina Repp, Jeff London, and now, maybe best of all, Amy Annelle, Hush has earned the highest distinction a label can reach – a diverse roster of talent that are united under the banner of a distinct sound. Although they probably can?t claim to have the market completely cornered on what they’ve termed “anti-rock,” jargon possibly as baffling as post-rock and anti-folk, the “Hush” artists generally produce nakedly honest singer-songwriter fare, stripped of all the baggage imposed upon the previous generation of Dylan imitators and presented with the crisp intensity of indie rock. And although the sound can’t be reduced to a clear formula, all of the artists have an almost painfully honest and uncliched approach in common. In short, they’re releasing about the only interesting modern singer-songwriter stuff going today. None of them more so than Amy Annelle.

Her second solo album, Annelle goes it alone, armed with little more than an acoustic guitar, her own smoothly silky voice, and a battered suitcase full of elegantly fractured poems populated by wandering outcasts, broken down lullabies, and dissolving landscapes. Starting off with the whir and creak of a transistor radio gurgling an old honky-tonk tune, Annelle whispers hesitating enticements to meet her on the hillside to sit “til the birds start talking English and we sing their songs.” Undeniably picturesque imagery of this variety pops up; although the poignant, if not downright frightening, imagery of “Broke Down,” where the ghostly narrator walks through a graveyard between “rows of sleeping souls” all the while longing to “wrap myself around you in the ground” is probably more common. At times somewhat impenetrable, Annelle’s verse still delivers what could be interpreted as one of the better sympathetic odes to the homeless since Woody Guthrie hung up his harmonica strap, as the affecting “Ugly Stray” echoes understanding for those who are pushed and pulled on their journeys back home. Overall, there is a deeply candid quality to her songwriting, maybe not as blunt or as confrontational as someone like Liz Phair, yet resonating just as deeply.

Musically speaking, the most common point of reference would be Either/Or-era Elliott Smith, with gorgeously wispy melodies balanced on delicately strummed acoustic guitar that immediately connects with a very human vulnerability. Amazingly, her songwriting sense is similarly developed, as well, establishing instantly memorable melodic themes, with the occasional faint keyboard and pensively strummed guitar carrying the heartbreakingly haunted refrains. Certainly, it’s hard to hear Elliott Smith and not hear at least a little John Lennon, with the dreamy electric guitar of “Soft City” matched by the pretty chirping acoustic of “Litch” finding a vibe similar to the more stripped-down tracks on the White Album.

Most incredible is the consistency of the songwriting, with no obvious duds among the album’s 11 tracks. They unfold and fit together like a giant folk-art puzzle, coming together to give a greater sense of the whole yet never allowing the viewer to truly get a definitive sense of exactly what it all means. Annelle’s songwriting is never overly abstract, but it is elusive enough that close listens are required to truly grasp the overall scope of the work, rewarding those who take the time to do so.

Finally, these songs are exactly what the singer/songwriter scene needed. They seem grounded in universal themes, vaguely traditional sounds, yet bear the stamp of the best of pop melodies and modern lyrical perspective. Like eerie half-remembered dreams, these songs are strangely inviting and familiar, wrapping drama and romance inside melody and verse. It would almost seem inevitable that her no-frills aesthetic will eventually give way to a richly orchestrated pop masterpiece. Lucky for her, she already has a roster of like-minded musicians on the Hush label if/when she decides to do so.