Here's an intriguing concept album, a midwestern Western set to music.
An elaborate backstory underpins this album. Jackie Lynn is a self-titled debut album, though Jackie Lynn is a character created by Haley Fohr, who has heretofore recorded under the name Circuit des Yeux, an experimental beyond-indie band. If you like first-person lyrics that directly reveal emotions or life details of the singer, you won’t find that here. Fohr has developed, instead, a concept album that is a midwestern Western, a short story worked out over eight narrative songs, one as short as eight seconds.
In the opening song, “Bright Lights”, we encounter the main character on the road, heading to Chicago like some modern-day Sister Carrie. In her baritone voice, Fohr sings in a sound more melancholy than excited: “Riding into the city, Greyhound 94 / One way, not looking back anymore / Bright lights, I’d like to know you, and forget the things I was before / Bright lights, you could show me, how to be queen of this city." The song is moody, slow-paced. While Circuit des Yeux albums were experimental in arrangement, here we have light percussion from a drum kit, noodling on an electric guitar, long-drawn out synth chords with background vocals — the sound of the instruments is not unusual, simply establishing an atmosphere for the story. But the sound of the vocals is unusual.
If you don’t know Haley Fohr’s earlier work, you’ll be struck by how deep her voice is. An obvious comparison is to Nina Simone, but Fohr sings in an even lower range and gets a clear, bell-like tone in her low notes, not the husky sound that would be more typical. A woman who sings in a baritone range evokes melancholy, which lends all the more mystery to poetic lyrics such as “I’m going to take to the streets, and find strength in all that’s weak / And like a white city dove, I’ll know skyscraper love."
The character Jackie Lynn is an outlaw of sorts, partial to vice, violence, and bad boys, which is explored in the songs “Chicken Picken”, “Smile”, and “Alien Love”. She wears out her big-city welcome, and as the tongue-in-cheek liner notes (citing an article from The Chicago Chronicle) tell us: “Jackie, now a 25-year-old Gemini residing somewhere unknown, has mysteriously disappeared after leaving a chronological musical artifact that the city of Chicago is now using to try to trace her whereabouts.”
Jackie’s whereabouts, if you listen to the album, are made quite clear in the song “Franklin, TN". Jackie is headed home, telling those who “drove her out of town” that she’s returning, traveling light, with a gun and three bullets: “1 bullet for my thoughts / 1 bullet for my dreams / And 1 for all to know I’m back in Franklin, Tennessee." Her outlaw vision is presented in a synths-and-guitar swirl of sound that makes for the most interesting sonic moment on the album. After a one-minute, minimalist instrumental called “The Great Fight”, Fohr closes with the album’s most beautiful song, “Jackie”, a rather straightforward acoustic guitar-dominated folk song. “Jackie, you’ve got yourself to blame”, Fohr sings, and we end this enigmatic concept album not sure of what exactly has happened to Jackie, or where she might go next.
Liner notes and artistic statements from the press kit clarify much of what Haley Fohr is attempting to do with personas in Jackie Lynn, though multiple listens while reading the lyrics will eventually get a listener to the same place. In either case the album does demand great attention. I can’t imagine any of these songs playing on the radio, or on one or two listens attracting new fans. Stalwarts of Circuit des Yeux and Haley Fohr will likely delight, however, in this new installment of her performance art.