A band named FemBots with an album titled Small Town Murder Scene might lead you to expect you’re in for something nasty with bitter vocals or maybe some punk guitars. The album cover makes you shift your expectations. The black-and-white photo is mostly dark with a blurry factory at the top, smokestacks in view, but possibly not in operation. The image gives a more accurate picture of what is to come — a desolate heartland trip.
You wouldn’t know it from “Intro”, 17 seconds of synthetic screaming and clicks that nod toward the band’s reputation for using found sounds, odd noises, and Teddy Ruxpin dolls. After that, the album quickly settles into its primary sound of contemporary Americana sprinkled with some odd noises. “Broken and Blue” centers around simple acoustic guitar work, but includes various siren calls. Lyricist Dave MacKinnon offers soft vocals that tend to get lost in the music. He sounds on the verge of being defeated, but still with enough life to sing.
The group could benefit from raising MacKinnon’s vocals in the mix. Perhaps burying the singer is an aesthetic choice making a step away from the traditional sound of rootsy music, but if so, it’s a poor one. For an album dependent upon characters, it’s awfully hard to hear what’s going on. I get the sense that MacKinnon and other main FemBot Brian Poirier have interesting things to say, but they make it a challenge to sift down to the lyrical content.
I can forgive that set-up for the beautiful atmospheres they create. Mostly they rely on the usual instruments — guitar, piano, and organ — but the restrained effects complete the mood-setting, and help to distinguish FemBots from their peers. Julie Penner adds some smooth violin playing on several tracks, most notably on the not-a-Dylan-cover “Tombstone Blues”. The Weakerthans’ Jason Tait also contributes some musical saw on roughly half the album. His wavering sound, which is especially prominent on the album’s title track, at times gives the ambience an extra nudge from dusky into spooky.
The band’s best structural work comes with “Theme from a Radio Play”. The track starts off with a simple bass line and some bell chords. Some very buried vocals come in, followed by bubbling noises (yeah it sounds dumb, but trust me on this one). FemBots slowly add instruments and sound to build toward a crescendo that doesn’t quite happen, the organ fighting for control via sustain, but eventually giving way to a steady hammering sound. It builds and doesn’t quite release before making a slow fade.
Showing wisdom in sequencing, FemBots follow “Theme from a Radio Play” with the initially-subdued (even by their standards) “Tombstone Blues”. The track works as a nice transition from the pull of “Theme” and suggests a gentle winding down of the album as its last true track. The intensity picks up as the lyrics clarify some of the heartache: “My love was beauty … And my love was struck down by my foolish pride”. The narrator then faces an emotional haunting, leading him to cry out, “Cast out your tombstone / Rest there no more”. Suddenly the violin and saw drop out for vocals over a quiet acoustic guitar: “Won’t you put back the colors that fell from your face?” Then all the sounds and noise of the album converge, reflecting the internal chaos of the narrator. The violin, expressive as always, cuts a path through to melody, and is the only sound that survives the song.
Small Town Murder Scene closes with “Outro”, a simple country-folk instrumental piece. The album leaves us softly after the crash of the last song, when everything has been spread out for us. It seems like we had just gotten to know FemBots and then they’re gone. In some way the strong ending makes us forget the occasional dryness of the album’s first half, but it also demands that we return to the beginning; this time with a more attentive ear and a more vulnerable spirit.