Mining the same vein of vaguely country-ish coffee-shop-friendly balladry as Neko Case and k.d. lang, Shivaree, which showcases the improbably named and extremely photogenic chanteuse Ambrosia Parsley, recently garnered a career boost when Quentin Tarantino selected their 1999 track “Goodnight Moon” to play over the credits of Kill Bill Vol. 2. That film was a collection of stirring yet strangely soulless genre-film clichés, and often Who’s Got Trouble?, whose title alludes to a song from Casablanca, plays the same way, with torch song set pieces like “Little Black Mess” and “Lost in a Dream” carefully rendering the atmosphere of noir without delivering its emotional charge. Like Tarantino’s films, Shivaree’s music radiates integrity to a peculiar personal vision and is infinitely preferable to comparable target-marketplace offerings (Norah Jones, Rachel Yamagata). But ultimately, it never quite transcends nostalgia for the older and unduly neglected pop-culture forms by which it’s clearly inspired.
The sheer tasteful competency of Parsley’s backup band—languid keyboards, tremelo-heavy guitar (to conjure “spaciousness”), occasional horns and strings—also seems to inhibit these songs’ passion. Though occasionally compared to Tom Waits, Shivaree shares none of his predilection for aggressive, junkyard instrumentation; it never risks that kind of listener alienation. The band’s tentative gestures at experimentation—the drum machine beats and the occasional electronic filigree on “Someday”, for example—only emphasize how safe and predictable arrangements are, yet without the familiar, corresponding hooks that are usually a strength of taking such a tack. (An exception is “I Close My Eyes”, which has a minor-keyed chorus readymade for adult-alternative radio). Even Parsley’s resplendent lyrics, which generally deserve careful attention, struggle to emerge from this narcotizing musical backdrop. Seemingly inspired by film scores, Shivaree’s music is cinematic in that it deflects attention away from itself, and it cries out for a visual context to complement. But your imagination is left to its own devices, and one’s forced to become cinematographer for the scripts these songs tend to be, and that effort severely inhibits one’s ability to empathize, simply experience the songs directly and inhabit their drama.
But part of what’s inhibiting may also have to do with Parsley’s clear, cooing voice, which seems more suited to tremulous, wounded vulnerability than the danger and seductiveness, the arresting sense of menace some of her songs demand. It’s the kind of voice that gets described as “jazzy,” though it’s far more reminiscent of Edie Brickell than Sarah Vaughan. The word jazzy, apparently, now simply means “adult-oriented,” and one should never make the mistake of confusing it with actual jazz, a style it has little to do with. Though it’s never histrionic and it rarely grates, Parsley’s delivery often labors to seem sophisticated, and the effort of performing—the actor’s work in it—comes across more strongly than the forlorn love they frequently aspire to express. Only the opening track, “The New Casablanca”, succeeds in achieving more than setting a mood; the references to the film play out an oblique personal metaphor that’s much more affecting than the playacting of a song like “Mexican Boyfriend”, which is packed with plausible detail but yet never seems to add up to something resonant.
Typifying the album’s limitations is the cover of Brian Eno’s “The Fat Lady of Limbourg”. One has to respect the gesture of choosing the song, but Shivaree’s version simply pays tribute to Eno’s without adding to our sense of the song’s possibilities. Strangely, the band’s own originals play like tributes too; they seem like faithful reproductions of themselves, remote from the moment when their relevance was self-evident and unquestionable. Listening to Who’s Got Trouble? ultimately feels like dutiful gallery-going, for which we adopt an artificial vantage point from which to theoretically experience emotion that we don’t actually feel while we’re standing there in that sterile, well-curated space.