Shannon Wright's as much an actress as a singer, a director as much as a musician, with exquisitely crafted songs suffused with such drama and intensity that they're best described as chamber theater. There's an eerie expressionistic quality about her music, from the trembling tympani and haunting sustains of the piano in "Method of Sleeping," to the melancholy tinkle and swelling viola of "A Vessel for a Minor Malady," a soundtrack for some doomed silent picture heroine. Wright's nimble voice trills, screeches and shrieks, going from soft and sweet to loud and bullying like antagonistic characters in a melodrama, echoing the music's cabaret quality and the dissonant art songs of Kurt Weill. While much less rock-oriented, Wright recalls at times early Throwing Muses at their most aggressive, with surging, shifting tempos and brash, evocative vocals. The ebb and flow give an almost waltz quality to the music, while melody is deployed as counterpoints with a kind of angularity you'd commonly associate with the D.C. alt-rock scene. An uncompromising artist, Wright played all the instruments on her first two solo albums, dark, stormy affairs that run from sad, acoustic folk in the vein of Elliott Smith on her debut, Flightsafety, to the spectral, foreboding landscape of her follow-up, Maps of Tacit.
Last year's Dyed in the Wool continues to explore the darker corners of rock, with additional help from members of the Rachels and the Rock*A*Teens, among others. Like a flashlight shining in a darkened room, Wright's lyrics are shaded, hidden, nigh inscrutable, inviting many meanings, more fragments of feeling and expression wedded to her earnest vocals. "You fiend, you friend, you confidant/You hold me against my will/I scurry and scant this hectic step/You climb adrift this boorish racket," she sings forlornly on "The Hem Around Us." If somewhat oblique, there's nonetheless an undeniable narrative to her songs, as often conveyed musically as lyrically. Steve Albini's engineering adds to the music's stark, harrowing quality--think PJ Harvey with Thom Yorke's mood disorder. As impressive as her recorded output is, Wright's live shows are even more effective at conveying the theatricality of her music. Here Wright's mercurial vocals find an audience to connect with, drawing you into her three-penny operas and then bringing them home with performances that register like a guttural blow. This isn't about foot-tapping or even the slow, barely perceptible head nod, but rather the rapt attention accorded a roadside accident victim as we rubberneck past. Wright's a singular talent with a bold, unique vision.