Rag-and-bone men have a centuries-long tradition of scouring streets in the United Kingdom for any unwanted household items that can be sold to various merchants. According to Liz Green’s bio, she has not only rag-and-bone men, but also executioners, back in her family tree. Even if you didn’t know that, and even if she didn’t have a song called “Rag & Bone”, you’d be able to hear that hint of a shadow world in her music.
Green’s songs are characterized by an often lurching, night-shaded style touched by the old. Think Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Peepshow” at half speed. Vocally, she’ll get lumped in with careening trillers like Joanna Newsom, but to these ears, she stays more rooted. Sure, her voice lifts and falls and sometimes comes at the melody from a sideways direction, but, refreshingly, she always brings it home when she needs to, instead of staying in the aether. Better reference points might be Edith Piaf or Karen Dalton.
Right from the start, with mournful horns and a chorus of “she’ll clean you out, she’ll clean you out again” of “Hey Joe”, Green stakes her claim to a wobbly vibe that mixes the circus and the funeral in a very Tom Waits way. It also lays out Green’s basic template: a spry, sometimes jazzy, acoustic guitar mixed with horns that can range from slight drive-by accents (“Luis”) to a song’s driving force (“Displacement Blues”). It also establishes Green’s ability to evoke the sinister. In “Midnight Blues”, she progresses from scenes of violence to the tranquil imagery of “I kiss my baby and we put out the lights”, and it’s not clear whether the song’s narrator is finding true refuge or a mere respite before it all begins again. In “Luis”, lyrics like “Tell me who’s that one at the back / I swear I’ve seen his face before / At my father’s graveside last week / And my mother’s the one before” could point to something perfectly normal, but it could also point to something evil, like maybe a vampire. Things are more clear in the waltz of “Displacement Blues”, which finds Green singing a dispirited cry to action: “Don’t look to me, you’ve got to carry your own weight / For they’re on, they’re on, they’re on their way ... I don’t mind the fighting / But all we got are the rocks and the sticks and the stones / But they don’t break the bones when they hit”.
O, Devotion! comes out four years since Green first debuted with the single “Bad Medicine”, and its safe to say that she didn’t lose touch with her muse during that time. While the album might become a little too fond of a dreamlike state in its second half, it delivers on everything that “Bad Medicine” (and its flip-side, “French Singer”) promised. This is music that sounds like it has its roots in another time and place (“The Quiet” sounds for all the world like its wafting from some ghostly radio), marking Green as an intriguing songwriter, and singer, to watch out for.