Luke Elliot – Death of a Widow – (Yerbird Records)

Album Reviews, Artists, Features, Luke Elliot, Music — By on July 8, 2010 8:10 pm

You don’t so much listen to Luke Elliot’s music as you absorb it — almost like a steaming aural shower that washes over you, and it stings a bit. The second release from Connecticut singer/songwriter (and fixture on the NYC performance circuit) is the five-song EP Death of a Widow, which features a full-on barrage of imagery ranging from pirates and preachers to sinking ships and old oak trees.

It’s a bit overwhelming to delve into at first, but like a classic Faulkner novel (take your pick of the major works like Absalom, Absalom!, Light in August, or The Sound and the Fury) once you’re in, there are many rewards. Also, with the more literate songwriters like Dylan and Elvis Costello, it takes a few listens to really get these songs, and although your interpretation may be different from the next guy’s, it’s still meaningful and worth the effort.

“Get ‘Em While They’re Hot”, the opening track of Death of A Widow (a title with grave and weighty subtext if ever there was one), begins with primal drum and bass and mysterious synth-vibes with a line that lets us know exactly the odd journey we’re undertaking: “Oh I’m crossing muddy waters, boys./Ten feet to grace, but the gators they’re all circling below.” Throughout, Elliot’s voice contains a baffled amazement, straddling a border between rationality and insanity. It’s simultaneously unsettling and enthralling. “You never know what kind of trouble success may bring,” he crows. “Well if this don’t work I don’t know what in the world I’m gonna do./I have been stuck here for years with you.”

It’s the same itchy quality one gets from Tom Waits or Nick Cave at their most troubling and gritty best.

“When That Great Ship Went Down” sounds like a dark love song disguised as a sea shanty containing so many love-as-maritime-disaster metaphors that you can almost taste the salt on your lips, “drowning in the sea’s cruel laughter.”

“Thing to Thing” is a tale of obsession and desire that sounds oddly reminiscent of “Ballad of A Thin Man” yet retaining an ancient originality all its own, while the stripped-down guitar/vocal on “The World Ain’t A Friend of Mine” could be a lost Woody Guthrie tune (of course, we at ATF simply love that): “The dirt that’s on my hands suddenly turns to sand/And it slips off into the sea.”

Overall, Death of A Widow has a dusty, timeless quality like that of roaming balladeers, buskers, honky tonk saloon piano players, and this is especially prevalent on the title track. Elliot covers so much ground here that it’s difficult to keep up, but the song is swaddled in melodies befitting a religious hymn. Again, with repeated listenings you pick up little gems here and there. It helps, too, that he’s backed by some amazing New York City musicians: Richard Russano (electric guitar), Ryan Stokes (drums, accordion, trumpet), Ben Fleisher (bass) and Mike Skaggs (bass).

Hats off to the talented Dave Van Witt (of Sidewalk Dave) who mixed the recordings.

This one is highly recommended, and we look forward to more enticing and baffling journeys from Luke Elliot in the future.

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