Tornado season may have just begun in these nervous, twitchy weeks before official spring, but it’s always tornado season on nature-programmed television, and I am forever enthralled. This has led me to the somewhat shaky thesis that Georgia singer-songwriter Liz Durrett’s album The Mezzanine shares an abundance of traits with tornadoes, but I think it works out so I’m going to run with it. Because I’ve been listening to Durrett’s songs for weeks, and like twisters, they’re starting to haunt my dreams.
The album opens with “Knives at the Wall”, in just the same way that an afternoon sky slowly turns unrecognizable beginning with the slightest breeze pulling the damp off of summer heat. The song is sparsely arranged; vocals, guitar figures, tinkling omnichord notes, and bass are spread out some distance from each other — but the space between the each part is thick and humid. Comparisons between Durrett and Cat Power’s Chan Marshall are thrown about like so many panhandle livestock, which is a bit of a mixed blessing. One on hand, there is an unmistakable similarity in the delivery and timbre of both women that is evident from the first line of “Knives”, and particularly on “All the Spokes”, which would have sounded perfect on What Would the Community Think?, and what’s so bad about that (hint: nothing)? On the other hand, the comparison is overstated for the majority of the album, where Durrett does plenty to distinguish herself.
“Cups on the Counter” opens with a series of images demonstrating the evidence our daily lives leave behind, “The cup on the counter leaves a circular stain/ The rut from the tire is deep in the clay/ The flat of the grass where a body once laid/ And the contents of pockets all strewn on the table.” Then the song twists into accusation, “Why try to lie to me?/ I’m not a child/ I know what I’ve seen.” Now I’m not sure what Durrett has seen, but I am damn positive she’s seen it. Again, like a tornado, I’d think twice before crossing her. The details, phrasing, and economy of language on “Cups” would be mesmerizing even without Durrett’s sultry and melancholic voice covering every word, but there it is, picking me up in a vortex and leaving me dazed in the middle of a field.
Produced by Durrett’s uncle, the inimitable Vic Chesnutt, The Mezzanine feels possessed by some of the same ghosts as West of Rome (on which a young Liz performed). “Creepyaskudzu” is languorous, with Chesnutt’s trombone and keyboard effects crawling over Durrett’s heavily echoed voice like the invasive in question. “Silent Partner” is an instrumental piano piece, recorded in the hall of Chesnutt’s house, some of the tones decayed just enough to be charming. “Shivering Assembly” bears Durrett’s uncle’s influence most of all, due mostly to his lead guitar and harmonica stylings, but also because the phrase “shivering assembly” feels particularly as if a donkey had dragged it through the myrtle.
But there’s little of Chesnutt’s revelry in the joy and humor of language on The Mezzanine. There’s a uniformity of mood across the record, and that mood is heavy, heavy, heavy. By the time the listener gets to the aching “In the Throes”, they’re in the throes too, enraptured but a fairly exhausted. Not necessarily a bad thing if you’re in the kind of mood that begs for inclement weather — but perhaps a little strong if you’ve been without the sun for too long.