IN MUSIC WE TRUST:
One of Portland, Oregon’s best kept secrets – hopefully not for long – Amy Annelle (better known as the front woman for The Places), gives us a taste of her solo offerings on School of Secret Dangers. School of Secret Dangers is a collection of gazing lullabies that are as intoxicating as they are dream inducing. Seducing you with her whispery folk guitar and ample pop sensibilities, than rocking you to sleep with her quiet, yet majestic voice, Annelle delivers an insightful, lyrically sound package of simple, wholehearted nuggets of sonic quietness. School of Secret Dangers is the bar at which modern singer-songwriters should measure up to, a tight recording stripped down to the bare essentials and somehow managing to sound whole in every way. I’ll give it an A+.
If you heard the album The Autopilot Knows You Best earlier this year by The Places, chances are that one of the major things that drew you to the group was the amazing vocals of Amy Annelle. If you were one of those people who enjoyed that release, then reading the rest of this review is basically a null point since you should go out and buy this one right away as well.
Although it’s a more stripped-down affair, A School Of Secret Dangers is just as listenable as that other album, mainly because of the knack of Annelle to write and sing amazingly catchy songs, evne if it’s just her and a guitar. Okay, so it’s not just her and her guitar, and that’s part of what makes the album so interesting. Compiled from a batch of self-recordings using vintage microphones, short wave radios, and analog tape, there’s an interesting, warm quality that lends itself to the entire recording, including found sounds that drift in and out of the mix and a warm fuzziness to some of the recordings that is a combination of the analog tape and the old mics.
The album starts out with some of these field recording sounds before Annelle fades in a couple strums of her guitar and the slight ticky-tick of a drum machine on “The Birds Start Talking English.” With the hop-along rhythm and almost banged-out quality of the guitar, it feels like a nice update on the classic campfire song (I mean, who brings a drum machine to a campfire anyway?). If the first song was good, though, it’s the next couple tracks that Annelle really starts hitting her stride. “Broke Down” is the epitomy of a bleak autumn track, and when she sings the line, “I wish that I could wrap myself around you in the ground” it sounds like she’s been taking hints from Bonnie Prince Billy’s I See A Darkness release.
“Ugly Stray” takes on a slightly happier subject (not by much), but the song itself is one of those rare tracks you find yourself singing along with on the very first listen. Creating almost a round out of two different vocal tracks, Annelle never gives herself a chance to get a breath, but it works perfectly in the context of the track. Likewise, the slightly louder amount of tape noise on “Idaho” gives it the quality of listening to a well worn record and again ties into the vocals talking about listening to old 78’s.
Although two of the tracks on the disc are re-workings of songs off The Autopilot Knows You Best, it’s hardly a problem, as they sound just as good in their quiet state. I know it’s not an easy task to create songs ones that seem to flow almost effortlessly, but Annelle almost makes it feel this way with both of her past recordings. Part Cat Power, part Liz Phair, and even a touch of Jenny Toomey (remember her?), it’s an excellent stripped-down album that showcases the excellent talents of Annelle. Most people probably haven’t heard of her yet, but here’s hoping that with this release, they do.
There are some releases that, by their very nature, fly under the radar. They’re understated little gems that deserve far more notice than they’re ever likely to receive. They’re like those little childhood memories, those little things that have a way of lodging themselves in your memory. They integrate themselves in your psyche in ways that you’ll still be trying to understand years from now.
A School of Secret Dangers is like that, as unassuming an album as any I’ve listened to in a long time. The album’s set-up is simple; Annelle’s breathless vocals, minimal acoustic guitar, the occasional field recordings, and odd religious samples. But it’s this minimalism that lets these songs breathe as much as they do. There’s nothing to weigh them down, no overwrought orchestration, no unnecessary arrangements. Just simple songs recorded simply, but with complex results.
An unsettling yet nostalgic atmosphere soon develops over the album. This is certainly helped by Annelle’s breathless vocals, and the effect is greatly enhanced when listening on headphones. You’ll find yourself suppressing an urge to look over your shoulder on a song like “Ugly Stray.” With Annelle’s voice sighing in your ear, it’s hard to believe she’s not standing right behind you or playing in the room next door.
On “Broke Down,” Annelle pines like a ghost condemned to wander her gravesite for all eternity. However, it’s only after you delve into the lyrics, and listen to them sung in Annelle’s aching voice that you understand the song’s unsettling undercurrents. “Ugly Stray”‘s melody may seem plain at first, but in its own way, it swaggers as drunkenly as The Denver Gentlemen. There’s the notion the song might fall apart at any moment, held only together by the strands of Annelle’s vocals.
It’s hard not to get entranced by lyrics such as “Cast off your belongings/Let the rain fall on the awnings/And age each day for a hundred years/’Til you’ve grown as old as the sea at night/A sleepy thousand years old as the rocks and the trees” (“Idaho”). Annelle’s love of imagery is apparent, though her imagery is faded like old photographs, or paintings left too long in the sun.
It’s hard to write about an album like this, layering on description after description, image after image. Eventually, the review becomes a pretentious piece about a very un-pretentious album. But with an album like this, sometimes it takes a lot of words to accurately express the moods and atmospherics contained therein. In that regard, _A School of Secret Dangers_ is deceptively simple… but it leaves its mark.
The title of Amy Annelle’s latest solo album, A School of Secret Dangers, quotes John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. Steinbeck wrote the book after taking a trip across the country, and Annelle’s album has a similar feel: collecting eleven songs from four years’ worth of home recordings, it takes snapshots of American scenes. With their spare tunes and elliptical lyrics, Annelle’s songs are like pinpricks on a vast map.
Amy Annelle has never sung a word she didn’t need. On her solo albums and in her work with the Places, she has a perfect sense of how to use silence in her recordings– neither playing faster to fill the quiet, nor slowing down to create it. She recorded A School of Secret Dangers alone, singing and accompanying herself on guitar. Her vocals are the selling point for the album: Annelle has a compelling voice that can sound both breathy and grounded, dreamy and rough– like having the bartender sing you a lullaby.
And the album sounds great, considering Annelle recorded it to lo-fi four-track. The ambience is intimate but wide-open, as if she were camping out in her backyard. Silence hangs behind every song, and it’s a breathing presence on the quieter numbers– for example, around the low vocals on “Ugly Stray.” The only context comes from the “found sound” between some of the tracks. Annelle also includes recordings of distorted music and talk programs from Christian radio broadcasts. Cribbing from backwater religious radio may not be original, but the dislocated voices are eerily effective.
Compared to the indie pop of her last album, the Places’ excellent debut The Autopilot Knows You Best, these songs have simpler tunes and stick closer to country and folk. “The Birds Start Talking English,” the upbeat opener, lopes along as Annelle sings about a campfire on a hillside; other songs are more dour, such as “Broke Down,” about an abandoned cemetery. The gently catchy melody of “Soft City” carries a description of a city at night, along with vague information about the person who’s looking at it. Annelle challenges herself to make these lyrics ambiguous but not meaningless. She generally succeeds, but the more detailed songs have better lines– check these ones from “Idaho”: “We stay up all night listening to your grandpa’s 78s/ Til the lights begin to glow and shadow all the lines on your face.”
A School of Secret Dangers requires more attention than the immediately likeable Autopilot, but its songs get better with every listen. Their subtlety, when matched with the restraint of Annelle’s performance, allow her to explore ideas that she can’t approach directly. Annelle implies the emptiness around the places she sings about, and the movement of people through wide open spaces, listening to half-received radio broadcasts. And in doing so, she captures the sound of being alone.
VELVET BLUE MUSICâ€¦â€these songs are so beautiful! – the epitome of acoustic minimalism.â€
â€¦Portland, Ore., singer- songwriter Amy Annelle combines her lo-fi folk and country sensibilities with the lyrical snap of e.e. cummings and a smattering of found sounds. (Sheâ€™s partial to not-quite-tuned-in evangelical radio broadcasts and nature sounds.) As heard on A School of Secret Dangers, the result is a kind of deconstructed rural music thatâ€”much like the work of fellow iconoclast Richard Bucknerâ€”seems to be at once be utterly forward-thinking and channeling some ancient Americana muse.
Spurred by ominous, driving guitar picking, â€œIdahoâ€ opens with â€œI dreamed that Idaho was on the coast but I couldnâ€™t find the state to take its place/We stayed up all night listening to your grandpaâ€™s 78s til the lights began to glow and shadow all the lines on your face.â€ The playing of the old records and the sense of geographical dislocation is fitting enough metaphor for Annelleâ€™s muse. You can detect traces of old folk and mountain music, as well as a touch of psychedelia. Thereâ€™s even a song that could be an outtake from the Velvet Undergroundâ€™s self-titled â€œgrayâ€ album, called â€œSoft City.â€ Nevertheless, these are simply peripatetic shadows, and none hold up under interrogation.
The truth is, Annelle is daringly original, and she has put together a batch of gorgeous songs on her four-track recorder. Sometimes she hooks into a melody and sentiment so wistful and sweet you canâ€™t shake it all day, such as on â€œWill Try.â€ Other times, she conveys her pathos with a touch of sharp wit, as on â€œUgly Stray,â€ a reflection on a homeless man that wings wide of preaching or clichÃ©, and that features an overlapping answer-and-call vocal between Annelle and herself.
ACTION ATTACK HELICOPTER:
Polished and pretty but never pretentious, Amy Annelle delivers a performance worthy of a thousand Cat Power records on this stellar sophomore effort. The songs-lovingly crafted and exquisitely understated in their sparse instrumentation-hint at a reserved greatness, but the best thing here is the production. Recorded over a period of four years (!) on four-track, Annelle employs WWII-era microphones, short wave radios, and various found sounds to conceive a time capsule as beautifully timid as it is eerie. The songs themselves shimmer with secrets that let us get close (but not too close), and create the sensation of reading a strangerâ€™s diary. Annelleâ€™s soul isnâ€™t splayed out naked before us, but itâ€™s not exactly wallowing in self-absorbed ambiguity, either. This record is like a good blind date–we know exactly as much about Annelle as she wants us to know, and weâ€™re happy to have met her. -Jeremiah
A School Of Secret Dangersâ€” Amy Annelle
Amy Annelle blew in to Portland from Chicago in early 1998 and has slowly carved out a name for herself on the local level, both as a solo act and as a member of the band the Places. Her first album, Which One Are You,, released late in 1999 met with widespread critical acclaim, as did the Places release, Autopilot Knows You Best .
This release was recorded over a span of four years (including a couple of songs recorded in the Chicago days). All of the tracks were committed to a four-track cassette deck and, for that reason, bear a distinctive lo-fi appeal. Despite (or because) of those limitations, Amy is given an intimate setting that resembles somewhat a modern campfire . Picture perhaps, folks gathering around an electric heater to sing songs and spin tall tales.
Whatever the case, the first song â€œThe Birds Start Talking English,â€ is a fine example of all of the above. An old country music song twangs on in the background as Amy winds up her singing machine and out comes a lonesome prairie ballad, replete with clip-clopping percussion and stereotypical Western riff. Amyâ€™s husky contralto and circumspect delivery are reminiscent of â€˜70s folkie Mary McCaslin.
A lonesome folk ballad, â€œBroke Downâ€ is filled with a sweet forlorn quality in Amyâ€™s dusky, melancholy susurrations. â€œUgly Stray,â€ the sad story of an unwanted creature (dog, cat, human), sounds a bit like Suzanne Vega in the early days, singing a Victoria Williams song. â€œWill Tryâ€ is a piquant little song, that captures nicely Amyâ€™s spirit of cautious optimism. â€œHow could you see a different moon?/Thereâ€™s only one to find/Strawberries will come in June/And maybe youâ€™ll be fine.â€
The high point of the set is the pretty â€œSoft City,â€ wherein Amyâ€™s melody fits the lyric like frost on a windshield. Layers of simple guitar create effective backing, as Annelle sounds a mournful tune. â€œIdahoâ€ too rings with compelling beauty. â€œCast off your belongings/Let the rain fall on the awnings/And age each day a hundred years/Til youâ€™ve grown as old as the sea/At night a sleepy thousand years/Old as the rocks and the trees.â€
â€œLitchâ€ seems to be the story of some sort of Billy Bob Thornton character, but the chorus is interesting in its chromatic splendor. â€œNothingâ€ seems to apologize for not meeting someone elseâ€™s expectations. â€œWhat Is It This Timeâ€ seems to take task at someone for not meeting her expectations.
Amy Annelle displays fulgent talents a songwriter and singer. This album is an unadorned, grass roots exhibition of the maturation of her abilities in both categories. She is a fine singer, with a voice that imparts emotion, while remaining somewhat icy and distant. Like Liz Phair or Vega, there is sensitivity, but not necessarily a sense of vulnerability. Beauty, but not fragility.
Amy annelleâ€™s country-soaked songs are more like snippets of dream dialogue. On â€œA School of Secret Dangersâ€, the singer for Potlandâ€™s the Places delivers silky surrealitiesâ€”â€œI dreamed that Idaho was on the coast but I couldnâ€™t find the state to take itâ€™s placeâ€â€”over chords that could have been lifted from Hank Williams.
THE ROCKET MAGAZINE:
Which One’s You (Hush CD)
The fall-out of love’s aftermath would appear to be Amy Annelle’s musical beat. In the still-blinking confusion of ground zero, Annelle fashions lovely custom-made jewelry out of the shattered remains that she stumbles amongst: twisting melodies and bear-trap lyrics that tear the bark off any vestige of sentimentality. Her imagery favors falling, fading, driving, walking and observing, all of which adds up to pain both emotional (“You’re broken, bad and blue”) and physical (“Though my back is aching, I wouldn’t change a thing”). Though she seldom raises her voice above a pillowy whisper, her quietude makes her confrontational episodes sound even more convincing, as when she asks the shade of a discarded lover, “Does getting what you want make you feel like a jerk?” On “Love Is a Many Splinter’d Thing” Annelle ponders, “What good’s a new love without a casualty?” revealing romance as merely the pre-game festivities before the real action. Her cover of Elliott Smith’s “Half Right” (better known as the untitled song on Heatmiser’s last record) burns with an unsettling acid calm. A remarkable and wrenching debut record. JOHN CHANDLER (Amy Annelle plays the Mad Hatter in Portland 9/10 and 9/17 and the Crystal Ballroom in Portland 9/22.)
AMY ANNELLE INTERVIEW
“A song idea is like a wormhole you have to dive into; it’s a small window of time that opens up and you’re either ready to go there, or you’re not.” To hear the process as explained by Portland singer Amy Annelle, one might think that her music is crazed and chaotic, the product of someone who has made the leap to an altered state, from which issue paralyzing screams of rage and joy. Sorry to disappoint the histrionics aficionados; perhaps renting The Exorcist might provide a necessary emo-fix.
Amy Annelle’s music is sober, reflective and just a bit on the frosty side, but don’t mistake her cool delivery for a lack of passion. On her first record, Which One’s You (Hush Records), the songs are quietly seething with muted post-relationship fall-out and a restless energy that surfaces as flight imagery–a desire to keep moving rather than stop and dwell on the pain. A rolling stone gathers no moss, as it were.
A bit of a rolling stone herself, Annelle arrived in Portland early in 1998 after actively playing in bands in Chicago. “I was pretty naive coming to this town,” she recalls in characteristic understated fashion. “I didn’t come for any particular reason. It felt right at the time.” Annelle quickly established herself as one of the more fascinating singer/songwriters on the circuit with her low-key performances, playing songs that radiated a palpable tension. Mixing material from Which One’s You with a baffling variety of smart cover tunes (a typical show might include numbers from the likes of Elliott Smith, Ronnie Lane or Roy Harper), Annelle landed a weekly residence at the Mad Hatter Lounge every Friday.
Though songs like “A Place for Everything” and “Mouth to Mouth” are clearly stark and personal, Annelle prefers an indirect route on the issue of song writing. “I don’t write songs verbatim from me,” she insists. “There’s definitely threads of my own experiences in there, but it’s never a literal translation of my life. I would hate to write vindictive songs–last word in songs.
“There’s a lot of things that people have in common that remain unspoken: things they don’t talk about with other people,” Annelle continues, elaborating on the prime ingredients of her compositions. “There’s secret things that everyone carries around and that makes us all human.” She pauses. “I’ve never talked with anyone specifically about my songs,” she concludes. “I’m open to the idea–I’m not trying to be the aloof artist or anything.”
Recently Annelle has been playing out with an excellent trio called the Places (What? Not even Amy Annelle & the Places?), which tends to somewhat obscure her name recognition. Fortunately, with the addition of Alaric True (accordion), Ryan Stowe (guitar) and Jordan Hudson (drums), sultry dream-pop like “Lazy Days and Castaways” evolves with peculiar new shades and colors. “I’ve always wanted to play with other people,” Annelle says. “It’s a good thing for whenever I feel like the solo singing bit is limited.” Based on the evidence so far (in addition to her solo record she has contributed to various Hush Records compilations), limitations are not something that Amy Annelle should have to worry about any time soon.
By John Chandler No. 317 January 12 – 26, 2000 Â© Rocket Magazine, 2000