EMILY HAINES & THE SOFT SKELETON "Knives Don't Have Your Back" Last Gang TALL FIRS "Tall Firs" Ecstatic Peace!

Friday, January 5, 2007

WHILE JOANNA NEWSOM WENT orchestral and Cat Power got a Memphis-soul big band, Emily Haines decided to keep the female neo-folkie genre simple. Of course, the Toronto singer-songwriter has plenty of opportunity elsewhere to make noise; her fine solo debut, "Knives Don't Have Your Back," is a break from Metric, her hard-pop-rock band. Much of the album consists of nothing more than Haines's voice and piano, although she is sometimes accompanied by the Soft Skeleton, her designation for the 10 musicians who fill out the sound with percussion, guitar, strings and eerie noises.

Musically, the effect is somber, as if Haines were modeling herself on the likes of Tori Amos. A closer listen, however, reveals that the singer is skeptical of such bummed-out balladeers. "With all the luck you've had / Why are your songs so sad?" asks "Reading in Bed," while "Doctor Blind" shrugs that the right pills will banish "lonesome lows" and "dizzying highs." As the opening song puts it, mixing melancholy and self-mockery, "our hell is a good life." Curiously, the ironic side of Haines's lyrics is inaudible in her delivery, making these tunes sound dark indeed. Perhaps the person she's remonstrating for writing too many sad songs is herself.

The members of Tall Firs, a Brooklyn trio with Annapolis roots, call their style "electric folk," and for most of the group's self-titled debut the electricity is muted. These 11 songs -- all original save for "The Breeze," composed by Washington's Quix*o*tic -- suggest a meld of British madrigals and American folk-blues, although they're more abstract than either. The band does record for Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore's label, however, so the occasional rave-up is to be expected. The album's penultimate track, "The Woods," builds to a roar as Dave Mies and Aaron Mullan's characteristic fingerpicking turns to frantic scrubbing and Ryan Sawyer's drums prance around the beat. Yet the storm is brief, and the album-closing "Don't Prey on Me" reverts to a rustic vibe.

-- Mark Jenkins

Appearing Wednesday at the 9:30 club.

Listen to an audio clip of Emily Haines

Listen to an audio clip of Tall Firs

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