By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Cult of Odd
With her new album Rivers, Elizabeth Wills builds on her first album, Going Home, working from a pure folk blueprint that recalls "Chelsea Morning"-era Joni Mitchell crossed with Shawn Colvin. Acoustic guitars set the tone, supported by appropriate touches of strings and piano; Brad Thompson--here separated from his Undulating Band--handles lead acoustic-guitar chores with an especially sharp sensibility.
As is usually the case with folk, the music is less about rattling the foundations of the genre--and there's no danger of that here--but of clearly expressing the vagaries of heart and head. In this expression, Wills' eye only seems to be growing keener: In the upbeat strummer, "Half a Mind," she celebrates the either/or aspect of new love ("I've got half a mind/to write you a long letter/and half a mind/to just give up") as if reveling in the freedom that such ambivalence brings.
In "Need to be Free" Wills contemplates that ambivalence from the other side, asking a new love, "Do you just need the need to be free?" seemingly aware that the answer isn't that important. She doesn't know if she can resist her attraction, resist jumping on the circular path that the "need to need" maps out, even though she's all too aware of what it will mean: "Should I take a chance on the circumstance/that I know you're going to bring me?" It's a sophisticated, multileveled awareness, and it informs all her songs, be they recollections, condemnations, or bedtime stories.
Former Toadie Tracy Sauerwein doesn't quite reach that far, but she does seem to realize that a love of loud, powerful guitar doesn't necessarily imply the kind of frowning, furrowed face-making that so many assume is de rigueur for hard rock. On Cult of Odd, she and the rest of Hairstick retain a sense of humor.
It's not so unbridled as to take the four-song EP into the realm of silly, nor does it get in the way of the thick, downward-coursing riffs that color crunchy, often-accusing anthems like the "It Ain't You" and the aptly-named "Grind." Overall, the EP's sound is reminiscent of Pleather-era Toadies, but more idiosyncratic: The title track has a lurching momentum that's like a parrot's-eye view from the shoulder of a drunken, peg-legged sailor as fuzzed-out vocals from Sauerwein appropriately intone, "Welcome to the Cult of Odd."
The rest of Hairstick--Mitchell Wilkerson on guitar, Jason Reed on bass, and drummer Mike Goodsell--fall in ably behind Sauerwein's "loud, powerful" directives, orders that don't necessarily preclude niceties like dynamics and melody. Goodsell--a veteran of Reverend Horton Heat and Killbilly--in particular does a great job of anchoring this promising debut.