Liz Janes: Poison and Snakes (Asthmatic Kitty, 2004)

Liz Janes Poison and SnakesLiz Janes is one of those enigmatic-type personalities in the world of independent music. With nary a webpage or huge media push for her music career, Janes simply creates compelling music and leaves it up to her music label, Asthmatic Kitty, to offer her music to the masses. The fact that so little is known about Janes  makes her music all the more compelling, and despite the limited media presence surrounding this wunderkind, I cannot help but feeling after listening to her new full-length Poison and Snakes that I have a good handle on who she is. You see, Janes pours herself so wholly into her unique blend of alt-country/doo-wop/indie-rock/folk that it’s almost hard to imagine anyone listening to the disc without being gripped by Janes’ self-revelation. Despite the inclusion of a who’s who of talented musicians backing up Janes (such as producer Rafter Roberts, who’s worked with Tristeza, drumming by Tom Zinser of Three Mile Pilot, the equally enigmatic Raymond Raposa of label-mates Castanets, Michael Kaufmann of the seminal Soul-Junk, trumpeter Jason Crane and backup vocals and saw by Pall Jenkins of Black Heart Procession), Poison and Snakes poignantly portrays the emotions and ability of Liz Janes.

That’s not to say that the disc immediately grabs the listener, because at least for me, it didn’t. Upon the first listen, Poison and Snakes seems oddly chaotic, with the lull of soft smoky bar blues being interrupted by Janes’ passionate wailing, spastic guitar heroics and crashing drums. But, the weirdness of the CD draws the listener back, and after a few listens, it all begins to make sense. Poison and Snakes opens with the poppy “Wonderkiller”, which begins as a 50’s influenced song about love lost, only to give way unexpectedly in the chorus to the aforementioned crescendo of sound. Thematically, this song explores how a heart broken by and earthly love can be mended through the love of God, which immediately and (for Janes, characteristically) defines Janes’ stance on her faith. The great thing about Janes, though, is that on this song and others on the disc, she explores these elements of her faith with a sincerity that non-Christian listeners can appreciate (in the same manner that a Sufjan Stevens or David Bazan would). The seething “Streetlight” follows, with its quick tempo, tense singing, dissonant guitars, and tight melody. On this song, Janes  simply lets loose and delivers vocals that make her sound like she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown…reminding me of people like PJ Harvey, Alanis Morisette, and Lori Chaffer, while not mimicking any of these. “Streetlight” just rocks, plain and simple, in a strange punk-meets-indie pop kind of way.

The Gospel-influenced title track follows, highlighting another aspect of this talented singer/songwriter. “Poison and Snakes” is a raucous hymn to the Lord, featuring more of those charming and heartfelt lyrics, classic Gospel melodies made new with imaginative arrangements, varied instruments such as banjos and accordions, and Janes singing like a southern gospel queen. “Sets to Cleaning” offers up more of that smoky bar feel, with lazy drums, gritty-strummed acoustic guitars, a soulful trumpet performance, and another amazing vocal delivery by Janes  in which she transforms herself into a world-weary lounge singer. Continuing in this vein, “Ocean” delivers an intimate vocal performance (can you tell that I can’t get enough of Janes’ versatile voice?), warm strings, and a folk feel with the picked acoustic guitar giving the song a loose structure. “Vine” and “Deep Sea Diver” both start out softly, only to have the mood shattered with an explosion of howling vocals and frantic guitar strumming and drum pounding.

Following these two songs, Janes  totally turns the listener upside down with “Desert”, a largely instrumental bliss-out/psychedelic/dream concoction featuring fluid guitar playing, angelic vocals, warm trumpet playing, and subtle drones. For 7 minutes, “Desert” transports the listener to another place, time stands still, and Janes  amazingly bears yet another aspect of her multi-layered ability. The 50’s classic sounding “Go Between” is next, with its almost patchwork song structure, and strong melodies. After the soothing “Desert” though, it’s almost hard to focus on this “Go Between”, as interesting and well-played as it is. Finally rounding out the CD is “Baby Song”, which consists of a solitary banjo supporting absolutely sweet vocals from Janes. The song is beautiful in its simplicity, and fittingly resembles a lullaby, with the lyrical subject matter being a pregnant mother singing to the expectant father in anticipation of the baby.

Overall, Poison and Snakes is a masterfully executed collection of songs that portray disparate styles, yet somehow remain cohesive. I suspect that that unifying factor, other than the perfectly played music, odd arrangements, and strong songwriting, is simply Janes herself. For even though her vocal delivery varies from tortured to delicate to jaded to worshipful, the spirit of this remarkably talented woman comes through in every song. With an unbridled sense of creativity and catharsis, and a unique sense of musicality, Liz Janes bears her soul to the delights of the patient and discriminating listener.

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