Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Album Review: Tonya Gilmore Phantoms, Fill the Sky

Ravens Flight Records

Oregon-based singer and multi-instrumentalist Tonya Gilmore may just be this century’s premier murder balladeer.

Several of the 14 songs on Phantoms Fill the Sky have appeared  in other forms on Gilmore’s previous releases, but all of them have been thoughtfully revisited and re-polished for the new album. And while she does capably play the bulk of the album’s rhythms and melodies—on vocals, acoustic guitar, piano, and hand percussion—a pirate’s crew of about eight other multi-instrumentalists really brings Gilmore’s tunes to a whole new level. The whole album feels meatier as a result—oh, and did I mention there’s a guy, Mark Powers, who is credited with playing the goat toenails, along with drums and percussion?

This is not an album for the light-hearted. The closest Gilmore comes to being even remotely upbeat is on a couple of new songs, namely “Brittle Bones” and the down-tempo, piano-driven waltz “Casino Night,” in which Gilmore calmly proclaims her certainty that “I’ve no god above to call it sin / or to do me in.” 

Where Gilmore truly shines is in her lyric writing and her vocal delivery. With a frequent and at times frantic vibrato, she exudes power while slipping effortlessly between vocal registers. She has an innate ability to capture the dynamics of the lyrics within her delivery, so that she embodies the loss, death, ghosts and betrayals of which she sings. It’s definitely dramatic material, and she works it like Edgar Allan Poe writing for musical theater. The songs are often layered with metaphor and thick with images, like short stories you have to read in their entirety to understand what’s really going on—though she can be unsettlingly specific too, as with “Pitchfork and a Torch,” wherein the narrator croons darkly to her lover, “I know the vein in your neck better than the rest of your head.” Suzie Gilb

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