Music

Karen Elson: The Ghost Who Walks

UK catwalker goes country to mixed results.


Karen Elson

The Ghost Who Walks

Label: XL/Third Man
US Release Date: 2010-05-25
UK Release Date: 2010-05-24
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With her blazing red hair, alabaster skin, and shaved eyebrows, Karen Elson was a remarkable presence in glossy ads and fashion spreads throughout the late '90s and early '00s. Stating that a model's looks are "unconventional" to the fashion industry norm, however, usually provokes a few eye rolls. Unconventional or no, even left of center models still meet otherworldly height and weight requirements. Although Elson's debut album, The Ghost Who Walks, should be taken without Elson's previous career hindering judgments, the fashion world analogy is an appropriate one. Elson's album, like her look, is arresting, but genre conventions are very strictly in place.

Elson is gifted though, and this is apparent from her mournfully captivating delivery on the album's title track. Although in subject matter—a girl's ghost recounts a stab wound that both broke and silenced her heart -- it comes across as a response by all the girls who have ever been murdered by the pen of Nick Cave, the song's outstanding beauty compensates for its risks of appearing derivative.

Wise enough to not concern herself solely with murder ballads, Elson dabbles, albeit safely, in a number of styles throughout The Ghost Who Walks. Her time spent collaborating with the poli-cabaret outfit the Citizens Band is evident on "100 Years From Now". Originally penned for the troupe, Elson's delivery, now gentle yet lofty, again rescues the song from being a photocopy. "Lunasa", which was written by Citizens Band member Rachelle Garniez, and "Cruel Summer" are spare folk songs that would be just at home on a release by any number of artists who find everlasting inspiration in traditional folk ballads, catwalk skills or no.

As evidenced by titles and subjects throughout the album, Elson has exhausted her copy of Harry Smith's definitive Anthology of American Folk Music compilation. Songs on The Ghost Who Walks come with titles like "The Birds They Circle" and "Garden", and concern nature, either as being deceptive beneath its peaceful exterior, or, on "Stolen Roses", as a haven. This latter song is another suggestive of Nick Cave, particularly his duet with Kylie Minogue, "Where The Wild Roses Grow", a song which appears to be referenced directly in the lyrics to the penultimate tune on Ghost, "A Thief At My Door". If the reference was intentionally made, it's a peculiar but suitable move for Elson to make. It has been argued that Minogue allowed herself to be murdered by Cave in song form to appear edgier. While Elson is not -- or so it seems -- aiming for edge here, she is vying to be taken as more than a statuesque looker. Who really wants to be known for hot pants or hair color forever? As Elson sings on Ghost's second track, "the truth is in the dirt on the ground / not in your gilded cage…". In the end, these traits are rendered futile by death.

Even when the gloss has been wiped away, Elson remains worth as balladeer remains, as does her maturity and elegance as a singer. Elegance and maturity are welcome attributes, they also risk tempering something down to the realm of safeness. In the end, The Ghost Who Walks, for all its prettiness and grace, can be best described with an un-model-like term: average.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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