Out & About

After her completely solo, home-recorded debut flightsafety and her small-combo/big-sound follow-up Maps of Tacit, former Crowsdell guitarist and vocalist shannonwright musically opens up her intimate, subdued sound with her latest release, Dyed in the Wool. She's still playing a kitchen-sink assortment of instruments on it, but she's joined by like-minded proponents of fragile instrumental textures as Rachel's Jason Noble and Christian Fredrickson, Pinetop Seven's Ryan Hembrey, June of 44/Shipping News' Jeff Mueller, Rock*A*Teens vocalist Chris Lopez and Japancakes' cellist Heather McIntosh. Under the watchful production eye and ear control of Steve Albini, Dyed blossoms into Wright's most musically ambitious outing to date.

Folding the plainsongs of Lullaby of the Working Class and chamber atmospherics of Tindersticks into her own peculiar, heart-wrenching explosion of Southern gothic, Wright wrestles affecting, moody melodies and slight, barely-there accents out of her players. The strings and guitar or piano intertwine into subtle counterpoints and sometimes into melodramatic dirges seething with an earthy country-rock or occasionally Weill-esque torch song that should serve as good settings for her stark voice. She's got a high-register set of vocal cords that she's always willing to push to their limits, from bellicose rasp to haunting whisper, but only every so often does she pen a set of lyrics that do anything more than baffle.

It's her lone drawback. Her ornate, pretty to the point of being picturesque melodies are eminently more memorable than her highly affected poetry, which can wander from the insufferable to the inspired in a heartbeat. That mysteriousness is no doubt part of her personal appeal, but when she delivers tortured, introspective lines followed by ambiguous enigmas, she only sounds awkward and clumsy. You get the feeling she's going for the sort of volatile Southern wordplay that fuels the elliptical song-narratives of Vic Chesnutt or the bitter bite of Leonard Cohen, but only rarely does she hit the mark.

Which is too bad, really, because her seemingly effortless sense of striking instrumental arrangements couldn't be more baroque and compelling. Her songwriting has become more sophisticated and ambitious with each subsequent release, and as soon as she finds a way to match the intensity of her music lyrically, she'll be one of the more gifted singer-songwriters--and not only female singer-songwriters--around. Until then, she'll unfortunately be called the Mary Lou Lord or Cat Power or Lisa Germano du jour, despite how infinitely inaccurate and misleading those comparisons are on so many levels.

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Bret Mccabe