[9 September 2010]
Lately, I have been discovering a shoegaze influence in many new bands that are not obviously shoegazers. It’s as if the implications of shoegaze have been quietly playing themselves out across the spectrum of pop genres. There are shoegaze-y electronic bands, noise bands, and so on. Elisa Randazzo puts a shoegaze twist on country and folk-influenced rock. Now, perhaps she isn’t consciously trying to go shoegaze; it doesn’t matter. The hypnotic elements of the fingerpicking paired with the drowsy vocals played in the 21st-century necessarily call up the drowning sound of ‘90s shoegaze. Otherwise, her music is rootsy and derivative. It could have been made in the ‘60s by the Byrds or Nico, and even then it would have been retro.
If you don’t make the shoegaze connection, you might find this album a bit lackluster. While there are a few really standout songs with wonderful melodies and instrumentation, like “Colors”, “Can’t Afford My Peace of Mind”, and “Wintersong”, even these could have been written 40 years ago. The album seems to rock back and forth between a British flavored folk and an American country rock. The first influence is probably due to the fact that Randazzo paired up with the old British folk singer Bridget St. John, who purveyed her own brand of gentle songwriting in the ‘60s with a voice that called up Nico and Marianne Faithfull. Half of Randazzo’s album exudes the British folk melodic lines. She too channels Nico, particularly the melancholy of her voice, if not the huskiness, and many of these songs could well have appeared on one of St. John’s albums from the late ‘60s or early ‘70s.
The other half of the album picks up the American folk twist and country twang that was all-pervasive in California around the same time. For some reason, the country-inflected songs, mostly concentrated in the second part of the album, are more interesting. Not that the folkier songs aren’t good; they’re just not as exciting. Those songs are like plaintive roundelays, and the overall effect in the buildup of tracks is to drone you into a misty moroseness. But as the paradigm shifts to country, a ray of light creeps in. (Perhaps the light comes from the lap steel of Randazzo’s other songwriting partner, Aaron Robinson.)
The song content is consistent: a loner woman who leaves the men and women surrounding her. This album is described by Randazzo as the outcome of the breakup of her marriage (to Josh Schwarz, a member of Beachwood Sparks, another band that does the ‘60s country-rock thing, and who was also her bandmate in Fairechild). The backstory of love lost explains the seeming arc of the album, which begins in the foggy and depressing world of British folk and ends with the sunny empowerment of American country. The melodies of the album’s second half project a more powerful persona. This trend rides all the way to the end of the album, except for the last song, “Good-Bye”, which returns to the St. John/Nico-esque. The most successful songs find a way to meld the two influences, like the consecutive “Blood to Give” and “Circles” towards the album’s end.
Bruises and Butterflies has a crisp production, giving the album that singer-songwriter feel. (Is it that one person makes the mixing process less complicated than the clamorous interference of multiple band members?) But this doesn’t stop the album from sounding vintage. Ostensibly, this is what Randazzo is going for, to sound like the music she likes and that influenced her. And the thing about retro music is that, no matter how good it is, even when the melodies don’t directly rip off a predecessor, you have to ask the question: what’s the point? Why should I listen to Elisa Randazzo when I have, say, Emmylou Harris or Sandy Denny, or even Bridget St. John? This is where the perspective of shoegaze comes in—perhaps—to save the day. It’s not an obvious victory, and it works against the seeming presentation of the music as the expression of the singer whose name graces the album, Elisa Randazzo—a distinct persona who claims a long musical heritage from her successful songwriter parents to her stint as a violinist with the seminal Red Krayola. (And who, of course, has her own clothing line, too). What this album gains from an association with shoegaze is a drowning of the personality of the singer-songwriter, the main focus of many folk bands. While these songs tell a story, there is something anonymous in the album, in the way the vocals remain close to the music.
The album is good, but is it good enough? Certainly some of the songs are. And for all their retro quality, they sound as necessary and contemporary as other any country-folk singers have over the past couple of decades. In the end, the album is pretty and engaging, but bruises and butterflies quickly disappear. It is quiet and works best in a lonely setting, on headphones. The experience of listening to this album doesn’t gain from being shared. Country and folk can typically give you this quiet and easy feeling. What the shoegaze adds—if it is even there—is a touch of distance. That’s what makes this different and more interesting than the album of a singer-songwriter: a kind of detachment, even in the personal themes of the music; a mellow yet overwhelming feeling that quietly takes its leave.