[14 March 2012]
The late great John Hartford once described an album as a housing project, where each song is a different room. By that he meant that while the tracks were unrelated, they did share some essential sensibility. Anya Marina’s Felony Flats has the same blueprint. Each song seems to have different narrators, but they share common traits.
The protagonists of Marina’s new disc are smart and savvy women who are sensitively aware of the vibe of whatever place they happen to be in. Whether her characters are playing classic rock albums on a friend’s stereo or dancing at the hottest club in town or even staring at the stars and wondering about their place in the cosmos, these women remain cool and reflective.
Being cool and reflective can have its drawbacks. One is essentially alone. Marina’s narrators sing about the yearning for love but never make a connection. Sure, there is good sex. The opening track, “Body Knows Best” should be a dance floor hit with its insistent tempos, guitar hooks and Marina’s sultry vocals. Her voice reaches the high notes when crooning about desire and the low ones when conveying satisfaction. My word, she is restless for more!
Her musical accompaniment has an updated new-wave feel, as if Marina was today’s version of Debbie Harry. There are lots of bouncy polyrhythms and electronic riffs with sparse arrangements. The music has an angularity that Marina’s vocals soften yet also makes her sound tough in context. Her frequent slashing of the guitar strings adds to this image. She may be vulnerable because she’s hurt before, but she’s not stupid. The album’s pomo alternative sensibility is not reactionary. It’s more confused and contemporary. Marina’s trying to work things out. By herself, she is lonesome.
This comes across in the way she sings more than in the lyrics themselves. The words are the most problematic element of the album. While Marina can snap off a clever line now and then, it’s more then than now. Many of the songs rely on banalities, clichés and mixed metaphors that just don’t work (“It’s like the sound of a drone / Coming through a telescope”). Her talents lie in the way she puts the lyrics across. She makes them seem like they matter, and I presume they do when rocking out to them. But they do not add up to much afterwards. In fact, what happens next seems unimportant. These cuts take place in the present moment and sometimes address the past. The future is a great unknown.
The good news is one can rock out to the songs. The sound of the music is more important than what Marina’s saying. She creates three-minute odes to that instant where the atmosphere takes over one’s consciousness. Her songs are like little rooms that one walks in and out of without staying too long. None of them are inhabited by other people. Some locations may be better than other, but as the saying goes, “nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.” That is, unless one wanted to be alone.