Eliza Carthy,
Angels & Cigarettes
(Warner, 2000)

Check an appropriate music publication, and there's a fair chance that you'll find a review of Eliza Carthy's new "major label American debut" Angels & Cigarettes in it somewhere. You'll read that Carthy is the daughter of Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy of the famous English folk group Waterson-Carthy, and you'll also read about her critically acclaimed previous works, including the double CD Red Rice, which ranges from traditional folk tunes to electronica-enhanced originals.

All this is true, and while it's good to see Eliza Carthy getting some well-deserved attention, these preambles seem like academic old news to those of us who have heard Carthy before. So, enough back story and market placement data --- can we talk about the music now, please?

Maybe I have this reaction because the ten tracks on Angels & Cigarettes represent some truly excellent work, and enjoying them doesn't require any particular knowledge of the annals of British music, either traditional or contemporary. The bouncy opener "Whispers of Summer" sets a fine mood with its catchy fiddle riff and modern drum track, but it's tempered by introspective lyrics like "All I can see is the frost on my window / All I can hear, is my mind...." The following "Train Song" is a measured tune that starts out sounding quite traditional, but turns out to be an original Carthy composition incorporating finger cymbals and muted hand drums. On the more modern end, a synthesized dance riff and quick percussion work appear in "Beautiful Girl," but Carthy's vocals and wicked lyrics still hold center stage without effort, as they do throughout these songs. The altered beats and filtered vocals of "Poor Little Me" again bring to mind several contemporary artists, but the smooth fiddle breaks integrated into the song makes it unique.

Near the midpoint of Angels & Cigarettes, the lush "In the Company of Men" features a classical 25-piece string section, some powerful and eloquent vocals, and the only lyrics here plainly unfit for a family publication. Given the combination, it's hard to know whether to take the 1950s cinema, jazz-singer-in-a-smoky-club musical style here as sly joke or straight homage, but the song is gorgeous no matter where your interpretation falls. A cover of Paul Weller's "Wildwood" is the only track here Carthy didn't co-write, but her voice takes to the lyrics of attempted escape like she was born to them, and the music appropriately unites elements of the near-folk original with those from the later Portishead remix.

The distorted synthesizer riff in "Breathe" is something one can imagine Trent Reznor repeatedly beating an audience into submission with, but here it's just the perfect tool to express Carthy's morbid half-dreams, and to echo her fine lyrical use of musical instruments as metaphors. "Fuse," the downbeat, delicate finale, drops back to the primary sounds of voice, piano and strings as Carthy pours out a confessional mix of release, emptiness and regret, and finds a suitably beautiful yet wistful closing note for the collection.

So, stop reading those biographical sketches and family genealogies, for there's no need to steep yourself in those facts now. Instead, just listen to Angels & Cigarettes, absorb all that it has to offer, and enjoy this fine piece of art as it manages to be at once traditional, popular and profound.

[ by Ken Fasimpaur ]



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