Grim, powerful debut from a singer-songwriter who resists being pigeon-holed with the help of a trusty distortion pedal.
This grim little gem bears a 2004 copyright and an ostensible February 2006 release date, implying a potentially dramatic behind-the-scenes story. An examination of singer-songwriter Bui's website, however, suggests that the actual explanation simply relates to her realization that a self-released album was less likely to garner attention than one on a label, hence the creation of her own Drunken Butterfly Records and the revived freshness of an album that's already circulated for a few years.
Whatever drama that story lacks is more than compensated for within the album. This Is How I Recover is a startling debut of striking power, and its relatively brief 35-minute length announces Bui's presence as an accomplished musical force. With a chameleon-like voice that reflects her diverse influences, Bui nonetheless establishes her own identity forcefully, standing apart from the quiet strums expected of a singer-songwriter by rocking out with a muscular guitar stomp often matched in intensity by her uninhibited wails.
"Hell Banknotes" opens the album with languid, almost ethereal vocals akin to Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star, but the song takes little time to reveal Bui's most pervasive influence: the bluesy bluster of '90s indie-rock staples like Come. Throughout the album, Bui unleashes an impressive torrent of crunchy guitar distortion, playing leads that reveal talents both technical and compositional; though she may lack the sterile virtuosic ability of an arena-rock guitar hero, her parts are creative, searching, and well beyond any simplistic strum-and-sing model. She's able to build tension with her voice, but also with her guitar, as the soft strums and arpeggios of "Untitled #2" barely contain the violence of a few slashed chords that perfectly complement the song's lyrics. "I get so angry I break in half and stab you with part of me", Bui sings, "A jagged edge would hurt like you would not believe". Listening to her, you believe it.
Drummer Mark Taylor assists to notable effect on "Manic Depression” -- very much not a Hendrix cover -- creating an ominous percussive undertow over which Bui lays a tale of mental instability in a Tanya Donnelly voice that suits the theme nicely. Other tracks address equally heavy fare, with "Hyphen American" weighing in on the complexities of dual identity (Bui is Vietnamese-American) and "A Virgin's Anthem" furiously rejecting masculine sexual politics, but Bui's obvious cultural literacy never impedes the directness of her songs with pedantic showiness. Closing song "The Beauty Myth" may take its title from a Naomi Wolfe tract, but as it escalates from a soft introduction to a jittery barrage of distortion, its indictment of sexism is all Bui's own.
The brief, delicate instrumental "Roses" proves guitar distortion is a tool, not a crutch for Bui. Indeed, the most chilling moment on This Is How I Recover comes on the acoustic blues of "Checked for Bruises", a haunting tale of abuse. "I'm doin' everything I can / Tryin' hard to please my man", Bui sings, before abandoning standard blues tropes for the harrowing punch line: "I give until my hips are sore / But that's not what I was beaten for". While most of the album resists any facile attempt to compare Bui to Ani DiFranco on the dubious grounds of them both being female singer-songwriters, "Checked for Bruises" does show an Ani-worthy ability to crawl under the skin and stay there.
The major flaw on Bui's debut is the production, clearly done on the cheap and often sounding it. While this does inadvertently hearken back to her '90s feminist forbearers, like the Ohio band Scrawl, whose noisy epics also suffered from a certain tinny production, it also reins in the sonic impact at times. It's not clear whether Bui's vocals are buried beneath the music intentionally, a la that early '90s indie-rock sound, or as a result of poor mixing, but that too sometimes hampers the album, especially in the absence of a lyric sheet. Still, This Is How I Recover is a remarkable album; it doesn't show promise, it delivers on it. Carol Bui deserves attention, and she won't be self-releasing her work for long.