The guy who whines, "one wailing dirge after another" has a point. I earlier had a review here (now withdrawn) that basically made that same point and slagged the album as juvenilia. After all, even Chan Marshall herself has slagged the album, saying "I didn't know what I was doing."
So why, then, does this album keep getting played over and over and over again in my music collection? Clearly something is happening here that draws me to the album despite all that. Is it the production values? No, while the album sounds surprisingly good considering that most of the songs were done in one take during the course of a single day, there's nothing special there, it's straight indie rock minimalist production circa early 90's. Is it Chan's voice? She alternates between singing and wailing at the top of her lungs here in a way that she never lets herself do today, which is quite compelling on some of the songs, and admittedly she's a good singer even then at the beginning of her career. Still, there are plenty of albums by great singers that I listen to once, say eh, and never listen to again. So is it something about the melody, about the accompaniment? I sit down and play a few of the songs on my guitar. Three or four chords go around in a circle. Nothing special there, indeed might even consider it boring or even droning. Steve Shelley's drums thumping along ominously and Chan and Tim Folijahn's guitars circling warily like uneasy companions add something beyond my straight guitar rendition, but the plain fact is that these songs have primitive stripped down musical phrasing and Steve and Tim's contributions, while adding to the sound, do not make it anything other than what it is -- simple three or four chord progressions going in a circle. So what about the lyrics? The lyrics sites on the Internet are useless -- the people who transcribed those lyrics must be deaf, what I hear listening via studio-grade headphones is sometimes drastically different -- but I transcribe lyrics via my own equipment, and they're almost anti-songs, mysterious and fragmentary. Then I put it all together, playing my guitar and singing the lyrics into my microphone using Chan's phrasings... WHOA. Suddenly we are on an emotional journey. Some of the songs are angry and violent, some have a wistful longing, some are just plain sad, but the majority of the songs have an impact far more than you'd expect looking at any piece of the song by itself.
In short, this is an album that is better than the sum of its parts. The parts themselves may be primitive as reflects Chan's skills at the time, but her musical intuition was present and accounted for and made a surprisingly compelling album. And despite Steve and Tim's contributions, it *is* Chan's albums. I've heard her demo of "Headlights", made with her Atlanta friends long before Chan roped in Steve and Tim to back her (and yes, by now it should be clear that Chan roped them in and not the other way around, you don't last 15 years in the music business unless you have that kind of cunning). It's the same song. Different backing, but the same song.
Some of my favorites: "Rockets" is wistful and innocent. "Itchyhead" is angry and violent. Chan's covers of Tom Waits's "Yesterday is Here" and This Kind of Punishment's "The Sleepwalker" are unrecognizable... Chan took their songs and deconstructed them in a way similar to what she did later for the Covers Record. I've heard the originals, and Chan uses fragments of their lyrics or sometimes entire lines but rearranges them entirely and adds her own emphasis to put the meaning she desires into it, a process which worked especially well for "The Sleepwalker", a song of alienation, loneliness, yearning, and betrayal that might be about a daughter yearning for time with her father and searching for salvation that is nowhere to be found. Chan turned Chris Matthews's original somewhat pedestrian breakup song into something far more than was ever intended. "Great Expectations" is a mysterious song of alienation and loneliness that is almost satirical in its lament of "great expectations", clearly the narrator has no such expectations. "Headlights"... what a sad and terrifying song that is, a song about death from the point of view of the corpse and what it might feel like to be lamented at a funeral then buried. Steven King would be proud.
So... is this album going to be everybody's cup of tea? Well, no. It's definitely *not* a cheerful listen. Mysterious, angry, alienated, sad, and sometimes infuriating, with only the wistfulness of "Rockets" adding any glimpse of daylight to the proceedings. Yet despite all that it is a surprisingly compelling album. And if you feel no closer to understanding why than when you started reading this review, join the club. I've taken these songs apart and put them back together, and these songs simply should not work as well as they do. Yet they work -- which is as baffling as this album itself often is.