[11 September 2006]
Amy Millan suffers one major problem in crafting her solo effort Honey from the Tombs: the album is in some sort of middle-of-nowhere limbo. It isn’t what we’re used to from her, and it doesn’t quite accomplish exactly what she wants it to. Amy Millan is the female vocalist for Stars, and anyone who has ever heard Stars’ best work will immediately smile at the mention of her name. Her airy, breathy, charmingly beautiful vocals carry some of Stars’ best songs, such as “Elevator Love Letter” or “One More Night”.
But the pop majesty of Stars isn’t what she wants you to get out this album. What Millan hopes to accomplish is pretty much the same thing that Jenny Lewis attempted to do on her solo record, which is to make convincing country music. Despite their shared reputation as frontwomen for indie pop bands that have nothing to do with the genre, the success of Millan—as with the success of Lewis—is not complete, which is to say they don’t quite match up to the standard bearer to this kind of stuff, Neko Case. Millan doesn’t have the voice for it. Whereas Case’s voice is edgy and desolate, Millan’s voice is pure spacey pop. Hard-worn songs about drinking don’t mesh right.
The album’s apparent identity confusion is best seen on the second track, “Skinny Boy”. On the surface, the lyrics are of country longing: “And there you are on the fence, / With those lips, I could spend a day with, / When it’s done I’ll drink champagne to the lonely”. The country guitar strums along in the background. But Millan lets her voice soar and reverb—thus it sounds like a lost Stars song. Yet this dichotomy is what makes the track stand out. There is something off about it, and often-times, music that doesn’t sound quite right sounds the best.
There are several moments where Millan’s pop brilliance really does shine through. The aforementioned “Skinny Boy” is one. The opening track “Losing You” is a genuine pop gem, almost happy despite its melancholy subject matter. “Wayward and Parliament” is all Millan’s voice, and it’s creates a dense atmosphere that, while not country, is certainly pleasing and interesting.
Songs that feel like country retreads are often saved by Millan’s voice. When she doesn’t seem like she’s going for “country”, and instead runs with the natural, airy beauty of her voice, the songs really do work. “Blue in Yr Eye” feels a bit too typical bluegrass, but Millan’s breathy vocals carry it off. As a result, the song becomes more than a bluegrass retread, but instead something more original which Millan has cooked up.
The album’s not for everybody, and yet in the same sense it kind of is. If you’re expecting something specific, like a really great whiskey-stained country album, this isn’t quite it. And if you expect Stars’ epic pop, you’re not getting that either. What you are getting is an interesting, slightly odd, but ultimately satisfying experiment from one of the more talented musicians today.