English singer/songwriter Karen Elson’s second album, Double Roses, is a long time coming but shows distance travelled and integrity kept intact.
Elson is an under-the-radar musician who has been making evocative music for several years. She sounds like she should be better known than she is but sometimes that’s all right. Her sound is easy to label as “retro,” but even that’s become a genre burdened under the weight of fuzzy guitars and backwards looking arrangements. There’s none of that on Double Roses, arrangements are flowing and nuanced.
On Call Your Name, strings, piano, acoustics, organ, pedal steel, drums, string bass and viola share the same frequency without clashing. Songs like this are all about how the singer handles and translates that information into melody and the mood. Elson gets all that and has a keening banshee cry to her voice, muted though it may be. Her voice has an edge but it’s a haunting one.
That ethereal presence is spellbinding but it needs the songs to give it gravitas. Laurel Canyon revivalist producer Jonathon Wilson helps Elson realize her groove and adds to the shimmer: part English folk, part ‘60s era expressionism. On some songs you can hear the moors in Elson’s delivery (Wonder Blind). On others she projects like a latter day Bobbie Gentry or Nancy Sinatra (Double Roses, Call Your Name).
She’s in her own league when she calls on the forces that shaped her spooky moonlight lament, The Ghost Who Walks, from 2010. That vibe is pulled into earthier material here (Wolf, Distant Shore) and it’s the same effect, just another context. It’s less supernatural, more candid with an ever-present quality of muted drama. Elson has a pure voice and she writes songs with a cinescape spirit to match it.
– Dean Gordon-Smith is the longtime music critic for The Morning Star. His column appears every Friday.