Eerie Americana haunts its way into your heart.
The cover image of The Mammoth Sessions features the most sinister rabbit-suit since Donnie Darko. This rabbit is white and winking for no particular reason. There is nothing about the bunny that seems once-cute, as if it were ever meant to be anything but a sinister image from a dark dream. Somehow the winking bunny-suit is more disturbing than any overtly violent image could be.
This explication of the cover image says a lot about the album it introduces. The murky, mysterious elements that hang over the album like Spanish moss never seem like they've been taken from horror movies -- the darkness is much more subtle than that, even when the band addresses "Baron Samedi", the Voodoo representation of death. His song is actually a gorgeous, deep-South one full of mouth harp and dusky guitar and vocalist Teresa Maldanado asking "You wanna hear a song? / You wanna hear a good song? / You wanna hear the blues beat all over you?" and soon proclaiming "well, my heart is voodoo".
Whether or not the heart is made of voodoo, Maldanado, a Texas-born singer-songwriter, is the heart of this album. Like the winking bunny, she never goes over the top to create the haunted atmosphere in which her songs dwell. While some singer-songwriters equate volume with expressiveness, Maladano is always quiet, almost as if her voice is an instrument that has been dampered by a blanket. Likewise, while many songwriters use crisply articulated lyrics to tell their story, Maldanado is often indecipherable. These two factors -- her quietness and mumbling -- prove how expressionistic an artist can be with a minimalist, impressionistic approach. The most direct song, "As It Stops Raining", is still a touch blurry, using a repeated keyboard riff, background whispering, and lead vocals that evoke White Chalk-era PJ Harvey.
For an album so stark, The Mammoth Sessions is surprisingly experimental. If you're not convinced by the gorgeous penultimate track, the 11-minute closer, "Bugg Super Love Song" should do the trick. A dissonant piano saunters beneath Maldanado's lament, which gradually accrues gospel-inflected vocals behind it. Four minutes in, electronic elements emerge. Given the sparse acoustic instrumentation generally found on the album, the electronic abyss growing here could easily be a jarring, Dylan-goes-electric kind of moment. Yet, it retains the dissonance and minimalism of the album, and therefore seems perfectly in place. Just when Maldanado seems to have disappeared, her voice returns fainter than ever, coming in and out of the song to haunt its stratosphere as the music grows ever more eerie.
When one considers great singer-songwriters, it's surprising to consider someone who delivers garbled lyrics at a whispered volume. Yet, one mark of a successful singer-songwriter is the ability to create and sustain an atmosphere, and Teresa Maldanado does just that here, even as she employs varying instrumentation and vocal techniques to leave listeners stunned by the beauty of the haunted Southern insane asylum of her songs. Perhaps giving listeners this pause is the reason for the bunny-suit's wink.