[11 August 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Katharine Whalen seems like a time traveller out of a long-gone, idyllic Southern past. She resides on a farmhouse, complete with tin roof, in her native North Carolina, where she spends her time writing whimsical songs on her banjo. That is, when she’s not building dollhouses. This doesn’t make her an over-polite dame or make her music lighter than goose down. Rather, it lends a timeless authenticity to Madly Love, her first album in five years.
Whalen got her start as a founder of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, an eclectic neo-folk/jazz/swing/etcetera band best known for their 1996 hit “Hell”. After the Zippers split, she released Katharine Whalen’s Jazz Squad in 1999. That album was what the title suggested, a straight-up cocktail jazz affair. Whalen took a seven-year break before returning with Dirty Little Secret, a contemporary yet unfocused take on adult alternative pop.
It’s good to hear Whalen getting back to her more rustic roots on Madly Love. She finally sounds completely in her element, in no small thanks to the production. Simple yet full, the guitar/bass/drums sound is direct and positively anachronistic in its total lack of electronically-assisted studio sheen. The rich, unvarnished guitars rock and ripple as necessary. In more than a few places, you’re reminded of the Velvet Underground in their more studied moments.
This approach allows plenty of space for the songs themselves, as well as Whalen’s voice. The rub is that Madly Love is one of the many albums that gets off to a great start and spends the rest of the running order trying to measure up. The title track introduces everything with Whalen’s unaccompanied voice. This is a suiting start because that voice, which is warm and velvety when Whalen chooses to tame it but is usually thrillingly all-over-the-place, is the true centerpiece of the album. Eventually, a hard double-time rhythm kicks in with staccato guitar stabs.
By the time it gets to Nathan Golub’s shivering, Link Wray-in-Hell guitar solo, “Madly Love” has indeed gone quite bonkers. Brilliant, as is the juxtaposition with “Roses & Pine”, which follows it. The album’s best track, “Roses & Pine” begins as a gentle, waltz-time lullaby, which has no problem recalling Lou Reed’s most affecting ballads. As the chorus swells, Whalen’s voice takes on a more sinister, shrill quality, which fits with the lyrics about “Naughty Jack” and the like. Something about this song, well, everything about it, conjures up that farmhouse, barn doors swinging as a storm rolls in. “Chief Thunder” takes a more straightforward, melancholic alt-rock approach, but is nearly as strong, thanks again to Whalen’s singing and storytelling along with strong playing and an arrangement that recalls vintage Go-Betweens. There’s an ‘80s reference you can get behind.
Having laid out such a powerful manifesto with those first three tracks, Madly Love then really has nowhere to go but to offer inferior, though hardly futile, variations on them. “Same Turning in Place” adds pedal steel to the pop for an alt-country vibe, and “Elevate” works a “Devil In Disguise”-type cha-cha-cha rhythm to fun effect. “I Know You Well” is the best of the rest, though. Like “Roses & Pine”, it starts out slow and twinkly before getting noisier, and like “Chief Thunder” features an “oooh”-ing, wordless refrain. The elements come together nicely.
Though it doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of that opening trifecta, Madly Love is always rewarding. This is due mainly to Whalen’s voice. Within the same line, she can sound delicate as a little girl or as tough and sexy as Debbie Harry, whom she has been compared to. Yet she rarely overdoes it. The Fascinators, led by Golub’s sharp, multifaceted guitar work, also live up to their billing. They manage to get their own character into each song without overshadowing Whalen. If you want an easy reference point for Madly Love, imagine a less contrived She & Him, with Southern grit taking the place of all the coyness. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?