Hailed for her debut album, Beautiful Twisted, which made the critics list in Rolling Stone, Sharron Kraus goes about her musical business in a very unique way. Performing with a quirky British psychedelic band The Iditarod, the British native has obviously listened to people like Canadian Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits, considering that a myriad of instruments and noises are emitted throughout the record. But Kraus feels at home giving each song a folksy nature with a grace that matches contemporaries like Kate Rusby and Cara Dillon. This is true on the dark, dirge-like “Gallows Song/Gallows Hill”, the two-part effort which crawls out of the gate as Kraus leads the way. “They’re going to hang me high / The people will gather around me there and watch me til I die”, she sings as the drummer sounds like he’s tuning his drum kit in the distance. The latter half picks up slightly as Jon Fletcher lends banjo to the tune that becomes a funky little toe-tapper.
This Appalachian feeling is throughout the record but is naturally presented with a Brit-folk style. The harmonica-driven “The Frozen Lake” has a haunting performance from Kraus that might be hard to meet, if not beat, the rest of the way. The strolling melody and slight sway is very cozy to listen to, recalling people like Nick Drake or a very mellow Alison Krauss. Kraus takes ample time communicating this message and it’s to her advantage to do so with such a lovely tune. “The Tree Of Knowledge” consists of a mounting dark tension and an almost eerie feeling similar to walking down a dark narrow foreign hallway. This tension never surfaces, though, just rising and then ebbing throughout. Kraus also lets her voice be more of an instrument on this song along with her strong backing cast. The tender and minimal “Come to Me” almost evokes images of a Celtic lullaby with her alone at a piano.
This simplistic thread through the album is one of its biggest assets. “Song and Dance of the Bees” is a tad more intricate as the percussion is just above a dirge pace and the violin solo sounds like a swarm of bees swirling around one’s head, delivering “tiny stinging kisses” as Kraus says. If you could imagine Nico growing up in England and meeting John Cale pre-Velvets you might have an idea of this song’s tone. Another gem is “The Pale Prisoner”, which concerns a lady in a castle tower. Here Kraus gives perhaps her strongest performance as a banjo is strummed in the distance. It’s as if she’s been possessed by a minstrel and is intent on traveling the countryside spreading her yarns. Hanging is a huge aspect to these songs also, to which “Song of the Hanged Man” would obviously attest. But this track contains more of a carnival, vaudeville atmosphere to it along the lines of Tom Waits.
As the record hits its homestretch, “Angelica Caraway” takes the album to a different area, working more with an upbeat and somewhat uplifting folk sound that Emmylou Harris could probably improve upon a tad. It’s also the first track that contains a duet as Jon Fletcher briefly sings between a gorgeous and rich violin. It yet might be this similar pattern that at times makes the album a bit repetitive in terms of style, although Kraus breaks new sonic ground on the slightly pop-tinted “Still”. The tune’s ethereal, ambient, Enya-like nature gives way to a cacophony of psychedelic seconds as it winds down, resulting in an interesting experience. This up-tempo motif continues during the faster “The Fastest Train” and the jazzy, swinging “Murder of Crows” on which Kraus excels. This might be a style Kraus could expand on in future albums, but for now you’re left with a lot of death ditties that are elegantly performed to near perfection.