Move over Neko
Angela Desveaux, the Montrealean songwriter with roots in rural Cape Breton, has a rich country-tinged voice and a fondness for traditional instruments. Still, her second album, Angela Desveaux & the Mighty Ship, is mostly a rock record, with strident beats and clean, simple guitar solos. Her band—guitarist Mike Feuerstack of the Wooden Stars, bassist Eric Digras, and drummer Gilles Castilloux—is much the same as on debut Wandering Eyes, but they’ve developed a knack for emphatic beats and clear, well-structured instrumental breaks. Feuerstack has some particularly good, well-thought-out guitar solos, on the rock side in “Other Side” and “Hide from You”, and in a more country-blues idiom on “Shape You”. Sure, there are occasional twangs of pedal steel, now-and-then delicate, vibrato vocal flourishes, and a couple of songs in country waltz-time to show her traditional roots. But for the most part she sounds strong and sure and indie-rocking, a latter-day Juliana Hatfield or Kristin Hersh.
Maybe the main element that links her to country legends from Patsy Cline to Lucinda Williams is her subject matter. Desveaux’s main preoccupation here seems to be strong women caught in self-destructive relationships. It’s a reminder that, even now, even for girls who write their own songs and lead their own bands and have the last word on every aspect of their careers, love can still be a problem, the one thing that undoes all the independence. The men in these songs are always falling short, always leading their women astray, and the women, whether Desveaux herself or a fictional character, are always putting up with them. The gap between the strong, self-assured singer that Desveaux demonstrably is, and the lonely, desperate-for-love women that populate her songs, is one of the most interesting things about this very interesting album.
Consider, for instance, the opener “Other Side”, adorned with long mesmeric guitar tones and cool harmonies, a country shading of pedal steel. Desveaux’s voice starts at a low murmur, as she describes what is clearly a flawed relationship, only blossoming in volume and clarity as she sings the chorus: “And it’s taking all my energy / When you ask me to do something wrong / It’s not me”. Clearly it’s a woman of integrity talking, someone who, for reasons of her own, has fallen into a compromised relationship. The same thing arises, later on, in the harder rocking “Hide from You” in the lines, “I can’t say no to you / So what am I supposed to do / When you ask me a second time / I think that I will try to hide from you”. What is he asking her for? Why does she object? You don’t know, but you sense the collision of high moral principles and the need for love. No wonder that in the lovely, slow-moving country torch song “Joining Another” she observes that, “Something about joining another / Makes you feel sad”.
And yet, despite the vacillations of Desveaux’s characters, there’s an undeniable strength and joy in the music. The title track is as sad as they come lyrically, describing a young wife waiting for a sailor whose ship has gone down. The song is dedicated to Desveaux’s grandmother, who lost her husband this way, and it contains bits of a traditional song about the Titanic. Yet it is lushly orchestrated, not just with rock band instruments, but trumpets and perhaps a bassoon, and it has a triumphant waltz-time swagger to it that cuts through the pathos. Similarly, the jittery, jangling “Red Alert” contains the album’s most despairing couplet (“In the end, who you wait for / In the end, who you work for / Can’t provide for you”), and yet its percolating Pixies-esque bassline, its jumpy tom-clattering drums make the song rock.
Desveaux has a wonderfully warm, strong voice, as effective in a confidential murmur as in her loudest rocker-girl wail. She can sing like a 1990s indie-rock diva (“Red Alert”, “Sure Enough”), or like a country girl full of flowery vibrato (“The Way You Stay”), and, moreover, she can make the transition seamless. Still, it’s her combination of strength and vulnerability, independence and longing for connection that makes Angela Desveaux & the Mighty Ship so remarkable. Maybe women today still can’t have it all, and maybe they never will… but it’s a worthy struggle, explored with subtlety and passion in this wonderful album.