Trailer Bride: Hope Is a Thing with Feathers

[22 September 2003]

By Adrien Begrand

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Emily Dickinson once said, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry”. The same could be said about the music of Trailer Bride. The Chapel Hill, North Carolina quartet has specialized in some of the most chilling, dark, Southern Gothic style alt-country music that we’ve heard in the past decade. Sounding like 16 Horsepower’s creepy little cousin, Trailer Bride serve up bare-bones country music at its most spare and desolate. With five albums in the past six years, the band hasn’t gotten any more adventurous, content to stick rigidly to the same morose, twangy formula. As with other minimalist groups such as Morphine, some people feel that one Trailer Bride album is all they’ll ever need, while others completely buy into their sound, losing themselves in the music’s gloomy, nocturnal strains.

Their new album, Hope is a Thing with Feathers, is more of the same old stuff, and while you definitely hear some signs of life every so often, it’s still impossible to ignore the cold, hard truth that this stuff is getting awfully repetitive. There’s the by-the-numbers, Cramps-meets-Calexico vibrato guitar licks by Tim Barnes, the full, reverberating acoustic bass of Daryl White, and of course, the unmistakable talents of one Melissa Swingle. Possessing one of the best bad singing voices in music today, Swingle’s lazy, emotionless drawl sounds like X’s Exene Cervenka singing dust bowl murder ballads circa 1930. Unlike her supremely talented labelmate Neko Case, whose powerful voice is warm and enveloping, Swingle’s near monotone keeps the listener at a distance, giving her performances a chilly, detached feel. It’s not the most comfortable thing to listen to, but it’s compelling nonetheless. Besides singing, Swingle is a formidable multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, harmonica, accordion, piano, organ, and just to make things even more creepy, a musical saw. With all that talent, though, it’s disappointing to see it go to waste as the album at first shows some signs of life, but then settles into the same old rut.

Not that Hope is a Thing with Feathers doesn’t have its share of finer moments. On the stirring title track, Swingle and her cohorts put Emily Dickinson’s poem of the same name to music, to great effect. As Swingle sings about Dickinson’s bird of hope, who sings through even the fiercest storms, her saw chimes in with its disturbing, Theremin-like warbling, adding a sense of dread underneath the otherwise optimistic words. “Silk Hope Road” is a heartbreaking tale of a lonely woman walking on a country road in her lover’s army boots and a tattered gingham dress, and, in a sense, is one of the most effective, poetic anti-war songs to come out in this war-torn year: “The army boots are ragged / Her feet are swimming in them / They were all that was left to be sent back / When the war was through with him”. The blues-drenched “Skinny White Girl” has the band sounding downright daring (for them), thanks to some great slide guitar, as Swingle sings about the soul of an old blues man stuck inside, you’ve got it, a skinny white girl, as it does its best to corrupt the God-fearing woman. “Mach 1” is more lighthearted, as Swingle sings some great lines about loser men (“He’s got a Mach 1 ‘73 Ford Mustang sittin’ in the yard / He spent all of his money on that thing / But he drives his girlfriend’s car”), adding, sardonically, “I forget his name / And it’s such a shame / That Mississippi men are all the same.” “Lightning” wouldn’t sound out of place in a David Lynch film, as it combines slow rockabilly with a wicked, monstrous riff that rivals the lo-fi heaviness of Morphine, while “Vagabond Motel” is a fine example of the classic lonely-on-the-road ballad (“I’m three time zones from where I should be”).

Aside from the terrific, atmospheric instrumental “Shiloh”, the rest of the album, unfortunately, is Trailer Bride on autopilot. It’s not a bad thing, but when you’ve heard this thing done to death countless times before, it starts to sound tedious. Not bad, mind you, just tedious. Hope is a Thing with Feathers isn’t a disaster, but it’s not a great effort, either. You want this band to take the next step and put together one great album, but judging by the inconsistency of their last few albums, the only thing that might come closest now would be a best-of compilation. As likeable as Trailer Bride are, even Emily Dickinson and her bird of eternal hope would be losing patience by now.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/trailerbride-hope/