Liz Janes: Poison & Snakes

Jason MacNeil

Liz Janes

Poison & Snakes

Label: Asthmatic Kitty
US Release Date: 2004-10-05
UK Release Date: Available as import

"I want to play guitar like Son House and sing like Mavis Staples," Liz Janes says of her musical aspirations. Like others before her, it's a noble ambition to mix the blues of a legend with the sweet gospel grace of one of the Staples, but putting them together is perhaps a good idea in one's imagination. Although not nearly as reclusive as, say, Daniel Johnston, Janes started out in much the same fashion with a series of lo-fi cassettes which got the attention of Sufjan Stevens. Stevens produced her first album and the result was a lovely, if fragile, piece of work. This new album keeps along that path and is also something that her two influences would nod approvingly of.

From the lazy notes that open "Wonderkiller", Janes resembles a cross between Nancy Sinatra and PJ Harvey circa Dance Hall at Louise Point. The '60s pop oeuvre is backed by a female harmony, horns, and an almost vaudeville-like jug band approach. This is before a sweeping wall of sound engulfs singer and song, coming in wave after wave but never drowning the tune or the flow. "Oh he's so true, why did I ever choose you", Janes sings during this enjoyable yet split-personality track, before veering into lullaby, music-box dancer turf. "Streetlight" has more rock and roll to it, beginning with a guitar riff that resembles something coming across the Pacific from Tokyo. The minimal Velvets-ish tone allows the sweet Janes to loosen up vocally as she talks about stepping over bodily fluids. It also ventures into something of a mainstream style, even with the haunting, eerie backing harmonies. Think of the Aislers Set if they got a horn fetish.

As good as these first two tracks are, Janes wouldn't have the success thus far without her fine and eclectic supporting cast, including drummer Tom Zinser of Three Mile Pilot and trumpet maestro Jason Crane of Rocket from the Crypt. Nonetheless, Janes is alone and somber for the somewhat forced traditional mountain hue of "Poison & Snakes". Possessing a moderately Celtic touch, the track waltzes along thanks to harmonica and a deft amount of guitar. It wraps up at roughly the right time, eliminating a lengthy and arduous fade-out. What works better is the off-tempo, barren blues of "Sets to Cleaning". Recorded off the floor, as easily discerned by Janes' brief "ba da ba" ad-libbing to start, the song churns slowly but gets its footing about 40 seconds in. If you could imagine PJ Harvey collaborating with Dylan as producer, this bizarre but entertaining nugget would be the end result. Everything is spinning out of control, yet Janes keeps it all spinning out in the right direction.

After a light and airy "Ocean" that goes on for over five minutes, Janes gets down to bare bones again on a morbid "Vine", which has her talking about growing older as the sun rises. Emily Joyce and Raymond Raposa assist on drums and bass to make this creepy, eclectic ditty come to life and almost the front of the stereo. A loud and yet distant guitar solo a la Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan colors the otherwise dreary, dirge-ish Cowboy Junkies-like affair. The homemade quality to the album is again apparent during "Deep Sea Diver", which includes either a front porch swinging back and forth or a front door opening and the squeaky spring overhead needing some oil. Thankfully, it evolves into a lovely little Americana amble that Janes laps up and seems at home with, sort of like a dirtier Lucinda Williams. The first huge mistake comes during "Desert", which is anything but icing on the cake. Here, Janes attempts to recreate her first piano recital with a simple elementary play on piano and an angelic vocal that leads into strings, horns, and a mood suitable for a Gregorian chant marathon. Regardless of this tune, though, Janes leads the way again on the simple, ukulele fuelled "Baby Song". This album makes Gillian Welch sound overly produced, which is a rarity.

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